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The brightest orb burns over Twickenham at the moment. As England defeated France on Saturday night, fans of the red rose began basking in a new light. With a debut of talent and promise, and a sparkle in his boyish face that has Simon Cowell wondering if he can sing, Henry Slade entered the English firmament.
160 miles due west of the capital, Slade’s Exeter team mate Dave Ewers has just driven home. He’s been a difficult man to pin down. We’ve exchanged a few text messages but talking to him has been tricky. “I’ve been trying to stay off the phone, what with my head and everything.” His accent is quite heavy, his words considered; he pauses before each answer to make sure he doesn’t give me anything he shouldn’t.
Ewers’ head injury was picked up just before the end of last season. A concussion that just hasn’t settled. It’s easing but it has been a difficult and frustrating few months. It’s given him time to reflect on last season and my first question asks whether he feels Chiefs were a success?
“Oh, I think so. It was disappointing to miss out on fourth place on points difference, but that had been in ours hands. To get into that sort of position was a success. We played so well in most games and really performed above expectation. We will improve again this season, but we now know how far we can reach. It is a realistic target to be in the top four and with this season being slightly different, with more pressure being put on squads because of the World Cup making us start late, the games will come thick and fast. This will suit a team like ours. There’s real competition for places. That bodes well.”
Talk to anyone who plays with Ewers and the first thing they’ll say is ‘team man’; Ewers works for those alongside him. Perhaps it is his past that has made him this way. Being run out of Zimbabwe by Mugabe as a child left him yearning for a place to belong. Exeter has given him that and he won’t let it go. He tells me of the difficulty arriving and settling, and how rugby and cricket gave him an identity, taken as it was when he left Zimbabwe. You can hear a solemnity in his voice but also a newfound pride. Devon and England are definitely his home now.
“When my dad made the decision to leave and come to England, I was initially excited. But it was difficult, to come to a brand new country and meet people. Sport was the way I could make friends, friends I still see today… Ivybridge becoming a path into Exeter was ideal; I came and started training with the boys just as we were getting promoted. I was very lucky.”
The southern African posse amassing in Chiefs’ ranks is also helping. “There’s quite a few of us now; Kai Horstmann and Don Armand, Shaun Moulton has just joined, plus some Namimbians in Chrysander (Botha) and Byron (McGuigan). Quite a big group of us, but really we are part of a big mix – New Zealanders, Australians, Islanders, as well as the locals; the array of accents and culture makes it a special team. We are different, but the same.”
As he talks of the Chiefs squad and the fun they have, his voice lifts into a warm orange. Summer additions to the squad in the shape of Parling, Campagnaro and Salvi are recounted to me at pace. He tells me that they will be together watching the World Cup. How proud they are of those members of the Exeter family who made it into the England Squad. And yet should you venture onto the subject of Dave Ewers not being selected, the light begins to fade. Answers become short, as if we are heading towards the end of the day.
And you wouldn’t begrudge him the dusk. As important and fluorescent as Slade was last year for the Chiefs, Ewers was equally so. In fact, you could argue, with the way Baxter’s men set up their game, maybe more. His stats against other flankers in the league led the way; more carries, more metres, more tackles. Ewers marauded his way to countrywide recognition. A whole host of selectors were blowing the trumpet; just not the one that mattered.
|AP 2014/15||Carries||Metres||Def Beaten||Tackles||Tackle %|
Stats: Opta Rugby ©
“Those boys in my position for England, in the back row, have been there for a long time. They fit well together, they understand each other.” There is a tone in his reply that suggests he has found a reason for his exclusion. “I’m really looking forward to watching them play,” he offers, yet I’m not buying it. I wonder how he deals with not being selected?
“I can’t control it. As soon as I start to think about things that are out of my control my performances will start to drop. All I can do is bring it back to doing my best for the Chiefs, concentrate on a game by game basis and focus on performing to the top of my ability.”
The light in his voice has dipped again and he seems cautious. I change tack and talk about the European Champions Cup; taking on the mighty Clermont at Stade Michelin in the group will be something to savour?
“I missed out last time we played them so I have to say I’m really excited. That is one of rugby’s colosseums so I think everyone will be looking forward to that. The European Cup is new for us but I kinda feel there is some unfinished business. We didn’t perform like we should have against Gloucester (in the European Challenge Cup Final), so I feel we need to make amends this year. Maybe missing out last year will be the best thing that could have happened to us.”
Exeter Chiefs are many people’s second favourite team and Ewers is one of many reasons for their popularity. His industry around the park has lit up England’s top flight and even though it may not have brought him the ultimate prize, he seems happy to keep on working hard for his beloved club. And should Slade shine at the Rugby World Cup, none will be more pleased than ‘Big Dave’. The reflected glow is welcome comfort for those out of the light. Just how long Ewers will stay there though, I wouldn’t like to say.