JACK Maunder knows all about choice cuts, having helped out in the family butcher’s shop in the centre of Exeter since he was six. His dad, Andy, used to get him to sweep the floor, encouraging the nipper to put his little back into it by putting on the Rocky theme tune after handing him the broom.
Andy, a former Exeter scrum-half and captain, knew how to tap into the spirited DNA in his eldest son, because it is something handed down, and shared. This applies not just to 23-year-old Jack, who has followed in his footsteps to become the Chiefs scrum-half as they chased a landmark first European Cup and Premiership double, but also his younger brother Sam, 20, another promising No.9 who is also in the club’s senior squad.
Andy and Sam know that on Saturday at Ashton Gate, Jack’s mission will be to use his scrum-half skills to help Exeter carve-up Racing 92, taking enough slices out of the formidable French side to ensure the Devon club win their first European Cup title.
They will be willing Jack on, but will be confident that he has the tools to do the job. That is because they know he has had to mature quickly to keep his nose in front in the keenly contested race at the Chiefs for the 9 jersey, with newly-arrived Scotland international Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, the nuggety Stu Townsend, and youngsters like Joe Snow, and Sam himself, all in the chase.
To carry on the Maunder mantle at scrum-half Jack has also had to show dedication and resilience. He has weathered being bumped down the pecking order during Wallaby scrum-half Nic White’s recent stint at Sandy Park, while at the same time managing to combine getting a degree in business management at Exeter University with being a pro rugby player at England’s most ambitious club.
Those attributes were recognised by Eddie Jones over three years ago when he included Maunder in the 2017 England tour party to Argentina. He returned with a first cap, albeit after playing only the last two minutes of the 38-34 English win in the first Test.
However, the England coach sang his bench 9’s praises for his role in the build up to Denny Solomona’s brilliant late match-winner, saying: “He had two passes to make in those two minutes and if he hadn’t made them the Test was lost.”
Ask Maunder if he is disappointed not to have been called-up at international level since, and he leans towards the positives instead.
“It’s something you can’t say came too early, because it’s every boy’s dream to play for his country. You have to be thankful for the opportunity – and I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed the tour, and how proud I was for myself and my family.
“Since then I’ve not been involved, but there are some unbelievable 9s around in the Premiership, like Ben Spencer and Dan Robson, and obviously with Ben Youngs and Willi Heinz still in the picture, it’s not easy.
“The way I look at it is that I have to be prepared to regularly reassess my goals, but also keep it nice and simple. When I went to Argentina there were a lot of areas in which I wasn’t good enough, and afterwards I was given three main work-ons.
“Physicality around the pitch, improve my kicking game, especially box-kicks, and develop more authority, whether telling the pack what I want, or fighting for 50-50 ball.”
Maunder shows the same objectivity as he weighs up whether, from age 19 to 22, his university studies got in the way of his rugby development.
“I didn’t live a real uni life in terms of doing all the socials, although I was fortunate to have a great group of friends. So, I was very much a student, and, as well as studying, made sure I gave everything to rugby.
“I turned up to Chiefs training to be in good shape for matches, and the only times it became tough was when it came to the exam periods around Christmas and the end of May. Those were long days, studying for three hours in the early morning before rugby training, and then doing another three hours when I got home in the evening.
“I’d even take revision into the club and write stuff down on the tactics whiteboard. When you’re studying like that it’s more mental fatigue than anything, and that’s where I feel the difference now. I can relax more.
“Exeter make us aware that rugby is a short period, and after it is a very long period, and there is a transition from living the dream to going out and having to earn a living in the real world. My family talked to me about awareness of getting A-levels and life after pro rugby – and I’ve got the degree in the bank now. I like the financial adviser and accounting side of things, and might look at going into the family business if my dad deems me worthy.”
So, does having a line of scrum-halves in the family which stretches back as long as the butcher’s shop – which opened in 1898 – make life easier, or more tricky?
“It’s probably not the smartest move for us all to pick the same position, but because scrum-half is such a skill-based position it’s been very good to be able to train together, and have dad’s advice.
“At school at Blundell’s, and our first club Cullompton, dad was very involved, but what’s so good is that we’ve had great coaches, and he always took a step back and let them do their job. Dad never overdid it, and I think he got the balance perfectly. He was big on fitness when we were kids playing all sports, and on body language, and how you talk to the ref and your teammates.”
Maunder also pays tribute to the Exeter skills coach Ricky Pellow and former Chiefs 9 Haydn Thomas for their tutelage at weekly scrum-half sessions in which no quarter is asked, or given.
“It’s good for me that Sam’s three years younger, because if he was a year younger I’d probably be out of a job! We have these 9s sessions once a week at the club, and it’s so much fun even though it’s pretty competitive – and because Sammy’s the youngest he cops a lot of flak, and I just sit and watch…
“You have got to relish the competition. What I learned from Whitey (Nic White) is how important it is to be at the heart of it, scrapping for everything. He brought that in abundance. We are a young group of 9s, and it drives you – makes you work hard every session. At scrum-half you are always in the game, like a wicket-keeper in cricket. We are good at chatting to each other, and helping each other out. We have the right balance between competition and cooperation.”
Maunder explains they all have to be on their toes because at Exeter speed of ball and pass are paramount. “It is pretty much the be-all and end-all. They put a massive emphasis on speed of ball in attack, and at scrum-half you are the first link. So we we are controlled when we need to be, but can really turn the tempo on when we want to.”
He adds: “Also, the Premiership is now a very strong defensive competition in which there are no weak teams. You see a lot more double-tackle hits, which slow down the ball, so you have to be able to inject dynamism.”
It is why Maunder picks New Zealand’s Aaron Smith as the scrum-half he admires most. “He’s still the best 9 in the world. The fundamentals of his game are unbelievable, and he’s extremely smart. He’s not the biggest or the fastest, but is probably the fittest, and he’s got everything out of himself.”
Maunder says he wants to emulate that approach as he contemplates the European Cup showdown against Racing.
“Of course there are nerves – which means you are not a weirdo, but normal. You can’t fight those emotions. It means you care and want to do well for the club and yourself.”
However, with the Premiership semi-final against Bath first on the agenda, and late preparations for that due to Sale’s Covid induced exit from the play-offs, Maunder says there has not been any detailed focus on Racing so far.
“It’s been a weird week and we had to review three different teams for the Prem semis first – but fortunately there are quite a lot of similarities between Bath and Racing.”
When he talks about the key role of the 9 at the scrum in terms of disrupting opposition ball, which could put pressure on Racing’s 9-10 play-makers Teddy Iribaren and Finn Russell, he says it is all about risk-reward judgements. “If you oversell yourself trying to make a mess of their ball, and it
doesn’t work, you can leave the defensive line short of numbers. So, if the opportunity to disrupt presents itself you take it – but you’ve got to get it right.”
Maunder adds that covering the lethal Russell chips, like that which did for Saracens in the semi-finals, “is a team thing”. He adds: “The best way to stop the chip-and-chase is to put pressure on the 10, because if you give Russell time he’ll pull the strings.”
He points to the experience of beating Toulouse in the semi-final as a template on which Exeter can build.
“We talked about the boys on the pitch having a responsibility to do the club proud. Watching it back, in that first 20 minutes people were writing us off a bit – but we had a big focus on repeatedly chopping them down, and it paved the way for us. It felt defensively like one of the toughest games I’ve been involved in, physically and mentally, but that’s how you want it to be.”
Maunder adds: “French teams often rely on momentum, power plays, and offloads, and Racing are the same. But just because we played well against Toulouse, doesn’t mean it will just happen again. You’ve got to be willing to go to some dark places.”
However, Maunder says there is another emotional switch that could have an even bigger impact as he reflects on the absence of fans.
“You want fans there, especially as our fans are second to none in driving you on and you can find that little extra when they are willing you on. But the great thing about no crowds is that our energy within the group has stepped up to another level – and it is a massive positive that we can get to that high level without a crowd.”
Maunder also points out that while most of the talk is about Racing’s stellar backline, the Chiefs have some glitter of their own, especially his half-back partner, skipper Joe Simmonds.
“Joe is one of the most talented attacking 10s in the country, as well as one of the best defensive 10s. His control is brilliant, as well as his attacking game, and it seems like he never misses a goal-kick. He’s calm and relaxed. Henry Slade has been brilliant for him, and so has Stuart Hogg. It’s a great backline.”
However, as Jack Maunder allows himself to contemplate what becoming champions of Europe would mean for Exeter, he pauses and says: “We haven’t won anything yet – and whatever we achieve we will have to sustain to become one of the great sides.”
Jack is as well versed about dynasties as he is choice cuts.