Article from The Times
Two questions: how smart are Exeter Chiefs? How hare-brained are Bath? We have an answer to both, sitting here in the stands at Sandy Park and his name is Ollie Devoto.
Exeter have a cracking record for taking rough diamonds and buffing them up. It is not as if Devoto is particularly unpolished anyway, but if he starts to dazzle at Exeter, then his exit looks even more galling for Bath.
No club likes to let its academy products go. Devoto left largely because he could not get ahead of Kyle Eastmond for a regular spot in the Bath threequarter line, and the irony, of course, is that after Devoto had decided to leave The Rec, Eastmond went too. Bath had two centres whose potential had never been fully realised and they were left with none. The Wreck indeed.
Why Exeter? It was not just the Chiefs who were interested in taking him away from Bath — reportedly Leicester Tigers and Wasps were keen too. “I knew quite a few of the Exeter boys already,” Devoto says. “That made the transition easier.”
Indeed, this is how clever Exeter look. In stitching Devoto into the team, Rob Baxter, the head coach, has pieced together an old boys’ reunion; or, more specifically, a young boys’ reunion. With Devoto at Exeter, they now have six of the England team who won the under-20s World Cup, in France, three years ago. That is rich potential.
Another question for Baxter: can you do the same fast-improvement job with Devoto that you have done on countless others?
Eddie Jones, the England head coach, clearly sees growth in him. He is only 22, for starters. When Jones picked his first England squad, back in January, it was Devoto who got the call-up ahead of Eastmond. “I must admit, I was surprised,” Devoto says. Why? Because at Bath, the pecking order was reversed.
This is Baxter’s view: “We see potential in him in a lot of ways. He’s still got a lot of developing and maturing to go, just as a man.”
However, the first thing he will do is give Devoto a position and not budge from it.
When Devoto made his debut for Bath, it was at full back, where he had never played before. Thereafter, he played No 12, No 13 and filled in when required at fly half. As Devoto reflects: “I was playing in a lot of positions and so I became a good option for the bench.”
Where does he want to play? “I want to be playing in the centre.” That is where Baxter will put him and there have clearly been pledges that his days as a utility man are over, for the present at least
Part of the reason Devoto became frustrated at Bath was because he broke through so quickly. Injuries opened the door four years ago, when he was just 18, and he did well enough to earn more of an opportunity in the following season, but in the past two, his progress stalled.
“Any rugby player’s going to be frustrated when they don’t feel they are getting an opportunity,” he explains. “And because I got that taste so early, I was hungry to play every week. No disrespect to anyone, the back line that we had was international class.
“At times I had George Ford inside me and Jonathan Joseph outside me, the two form players in England at the time. It was great when I got the chance, but the chances were very few and far between.”
It was not just that, though. Bath’s struggles last season in which they finished ninth in the Premiership were well documented. “The frustration started,” he said, “because we weren’t doing as well as we did the year before. That has an impact on the coaches and obviously then on the players.”
Collectively, this led to what he describes as “the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make”. The irony is that Eastmond has now gone and Mike Ford, the coach who wouldn’t give him the game time he wanted, has gone too.
So maybe he should have stayed? “That’s a complete waste of mental energy,” he says. “Yes, there has been an urge at times to think: what have I done? But I haven’t had any regrets about it at all.”
One person particularly delighted with the move, he says, is his granny. She is a Devonian. Devoto was brought up in Sherborne, in Dorset, into a family that is rugby through and through.
His father, Steve, played for Sherborne Rugby Club, as did his grandfather. Devoto himself has an England cap to his name — via a five-minute stint off the bench in the Wales game in May — but his uncle likes to remind him that he was not the first Devoto to play international rugby. His uncle was a policeman, did a stint in the force in Bermuda, and got capped there.
Some of Devoto’s first memories are as a toddler in the minibus with the Sherborne team, of which his father was the coach. His father then coached him from the Sherborne minis through to under-16s, though the father-son dynamic, so prevalent in English rugby at present, never quite worked for him.
“I actually disliked my dad coaching me a lot. He was pretty harsh on me,” he says. No favouritism? “He was always conscious that the other parents would say something so, if there was ever a 50-50, I’d be off doing laps or press-ups. Aged 14 and 15, I used to just not talk to him, I just couldn’t understand it.”
He grew up, in those days, with Sherborne School’s magnificent facilities stretching before him, but never his to play on; he went to the state school, the Gryphon, a mile away.
By sixth form, he was a sought-after commodity among the public schools. He got as far as an induction day at Sherborne but got poached by Bryanston instead.
Bryanston was a feeder school to Bath; once he was there, his path was set: Bryanston to Bath to England. No one would have expected the next move, 90-odd miles southwest to Exeter.
From Sherborne to Bath and Exeter is pretty much equidistant. So the Devoto family are quite content. His father has not missed a home game since he turned pro, so he, too, is quite content with the new location. Sitting here in the stands at Sandy Park, Devoto appears entirely content as well.
How smart are Exeter Chiefs? And: how hare-brained are Bath? It is for Devoto, now, to provide the answer.
Exeter’s six stars of England’s 2013 U20 World Cup win
Luke Cowan-Dickie One of the two Cornishmen. Played mini rugby at Penzance and Newlyn RFC alongside Jack Nowell. Now England’s third-choice hooker
Ollie Devoto The latest recruit. A potentially brilliant signing from Bath. Came off the bench in that under-20s final to play full back
Alec Hepburn Loosehead prop. Is part-Aussie. Played for the London Welsh side that won promotion from the Championship, then returned to Perth, before being recruited to join Exeter in 2015
Sam Hill Born in Exeter, very much on home turf. Played inside centre in the under-20s final and scored a try
Jack Nowell The other Cornishman, left. Scored a try in the under-20s final. The first of this cohort to break into the England team. Now has 18 caps
Henry Slade The No 10 and place-kicker in the under-20s team. Kicked three penalties and two conversions in the final. Now knocking loudly on the door to Eddie Jones’s England