Neil's 10 years is an incredible achievement in today's game
IN the modern game, professional rugby players rarely manage to put in a five-year stint with their club, never mind the 10 required for a testimonial. Either the physical nature of the game and the injuries that follow, being deemed surplus to requirements, or looking for further challenges mean that to reach the landmark is quite a feat.
Therefore I was honoured to be a part of the opening event of Chiefs hooker Neil Clark's testimonial programme last Thursday. Entitled 'Three hookers, a Tank and a Bentley Convertible', I shared the stage with British and Irish Lions Mark Regan and Lee Mears, Clarky and one of the funniest men I've ever met, Tank Sherman.
Over 300 guests were regaled with anecdotes from the three hookers with yours truly acting as MC, followed by a turn by Devon hero Tank.
There was even a 'surprise surprise' moment for Neil when his comedy hero Jethro turned up late in the evening (thanks to a call from Tank) to provide a 20-minute slot to really put a cap on a fabulous evening.
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The organising committee for Neil have put on a real smorgasbord of events that will include something for everyone. I'm hoping for a call up to be a part of his testimonial match but with a ladies night, gala dinner and golf day already confirmed, there really is a great programme of events to look forward to away from the exploits of the boys on the field.
At the 'hookers' evening', the team spirit that exists within the Chiefs squad was hugely in evidence, with well over half of the squad in attendance to show their support of Neil.
It is important to point out at this point that the boys all paid for their tickets on the night as Neil has chosen two great charities (the Exeter Foundation and the Ryan Edwards Appeal) to benefit from his long service and did not want to prevent either benefiting by their attendance.
On the subject of the team spirit at Chiefs, rarely has it been more evident than early on a chilly Sunday evening in Oxford. The LV= Cup provides a chance for clubs to rest some of the guys that have played most of the early season fixtures, give the academy youngsters a run, and get some much-needed pitch time for the squad members who have not been on the right side of selection.
Having been one of the players struggling for pitch time last year, I know just how difficult it can be to gel together as a team when, for the previous eight weeks, you have been holding tackle shields and rehearsing opponents' plays.
To be a rugby player is a huge privilege, but when you are one that is not actually playing, there is a big challenge to remain on task and ready to explode into a game when the opportunity arises.
Our opponents were London Welsh who, being new in the Premiership and – through no fault of their own – do not have an academy structure like the Chiefs, had selected a very strong team with nine players who had just beaten Bath in the Premiership.
Travelling to the game on Sunday, I have to admit that although I was hopeful, I was not too expectant of the Chiefs boys coming back with a positive result.
How wrong could I be?
On arrival at the stadium, I saw just how fortunate we are to have Sandy Park on our doorstep. Poor old London Welsh have to travel two hours from central London to make it to a home game. This meant that the raiding party from the tribe had travelled for pretty much the same amount of time as the 'home' fans to reach the match! However, there was only one group you could hear on the day.... and they most certainly were not Welsh!
Watching the boys run onto the field, I was knocked out by the confidence and assuredness from the young guys, not to mention the ruthlessness of the senior guys. With only a few A League games under their belt, the rustiness I certainly expected was not evident at all. Led inspirationally by Junior Polu, the team took on the Welsh in every facet of play and ran out deserved 42-15 winners on the day.
It's at this point that I should pay note to the England under-20s within the squad, but I feel we will hear a lot about Messrs Slade, Cowan-Dickie, Arnott, Nowell and Hill over the coming months. Perhaps though I should acknowledge England under-18 player Joel Conlon, but I think he too will be getting his fair share of headlines in the not-too-distant future.
Maybe I should give a mention to the young giants Will Carrick Smith and Dave Ewers but again, with both being just over 20, we will be hearing more from them very soon.
Finally, with the university providing another five members of Sunday's team, it is fair to say there is one unbelievably talented conveyor belt providing the Chiefs with new blood for the coming years.
However for me, of equal if not more importance was the performance of the senior players in the rank. The guys paid no heed to the fact that, in a lot of cases, this was their first senior rugby of the season and have provided the coaching staff with a magnificent selection headache to have next week when the Ospreys come to town for another LV= Cup clash.
Be sure to head on down and catch what, if last Sunday was anything to go by, will be an amazing spectacle and a sign of the things to come from our Exeter Chiefs.
Until the next time, stay safe and enjoy your rugby.