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The American dreamer

Lucy Lomax

Of all the clubs in the Premier 15s competition, Exeter Chiefs Women have been the indisputable surprise of the season, a fairy-tale told in a Devonian burr. 

The newly formed Chiefs side played their first match in the top-tier competition in October and have since risen to fifth in the table, currently riding a high of six wins on the bounce, taking the scalps of two of the league’s most dominant sides, Saracens and Harlequins, along the way.

Look beyond the headlines and those accomplishments are even more impressive – Saracens being unbeaten in 33 matches prior to their date with Exeter; Harlequins, packed with internationals, held tryless by the Chiefs. 

The recent results are less of a surprise to current USA Eagles captain and Exeter flanker Kate Zackary, who suggests the way the team culture and cohesiveness was handled from the start, plus the club making good on their promise of investment, has meant results were always likely to shift in their favour. 

Exeter Chiefs’ Kate Zackary in action against Wasps FC Ladies at Sandy Park. (Photo by Bob Bradford – CameraSport via Getty Images)

“The first few months everyone was relocating or changing lifestyles, which I think was an immediate unifying factor for the team,” says Zackary. “There wasn’t much culture chat in those first few months, we just let the environment develop organically. Everyone had been new at one point in those first few weeks, and everyone knew we were all going through the same thing. With a new club you don’t know what it’s going to be like until you get there.”

But for Zackary it was a risk worth taking. Brought up in America’s Mid-West, the former soccer scholar turned sevens player rose up the national ladder fast. After experiencing heartbreak in the 2017 World Cup semi-finals, losing to New Zealand, the 31-year-old’s decision to cross the pond was made with this year’s (recently postponed) World Cup in mind. We’ll come back to that in a bit.

“Back with the USA set up we’ve watched a lot of English domestic rugby, it’s a great way to do homework on English players,” she said. “I personally was interested to see how our domestic competition (Women’s Premier League) matched up with the Premier 15s over here and how I matched up individually to players across the globe.”

The former San Diego Surfer back row recalls how her own recruitment happened after being put in touch with the club via previous Saracens Women’s Head Coach Rob Cain, now in charge of the USA women’s national team.

It’s known within the women’s game that you’re probably going to have to uproot if you want to pursue your dreams of becoming a better player.

Kate Zackary

“Rob saw an opportunity for a few Americans to play full time in the season leading up to the World Cup and with the long-term effect of Covid becoming obvious, he used his connections and put us in touch with the coaches,” she said. “It’s also known within the women’s game that you’re probably going to have to uproot if you want to pursue your dreams of becoming a better player, so I took the opportunity.” 

Praise for Exeter’s recent wins has rightly landed in the laps of Head Coach and Assistant Coach, Susie Appleby and Amy Garnett, who were in charge of the club’s recruitment process, the two former England players pulling together a 40-player elite team on Zoom during the height of the pandemic, as face to face meetings were out of the question.  

The pair did a grand job in acquiring untapped talent native to Devon and Cornwall whilst also searching further afield to entice international players from across the world. Not only was Zackary joined by four other USA internationals in signing a contract but also by stand-out players from Canada, Spain, Holland, England and Wales. However, bringing in players from across the world did pose its challenges. 

“I don’t think it was until Christmas that we saw our structure really come to fruition and started seeing people playing naturally off each other and finally not being so rigid,” says Zackary. “We were a bunch of people who had never played together before, coming from all different sorts of training styles and backgrounds from lower level to national team level and having to meet in the middle. Susie and Amy did a good job of installing some basics and then further into the season things became a bit more player led. 

Susie Appleby’s recruitment drive and ability to nurture team spirit has already paid off. (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

“As our culture developed, so did our defence. Defence is a system built on trust, you can have great tacklers, but you’ve got to trust your inside to make their tackles. You could see that in the number of double shots we put in against Saracens and Quins. Those dominant tackles are about trusting that someone is going to go low so you can go high, it’s one of those things that has come with time.”

The first few results of the season were disappointing for Exeter but by December they’d picked up wins over Worcester Warriors and DMP Durham Sharks. Then came the season’s turning point, a 38-0 destruction of Sale Sharks just before the Christmas break. 

“The Sale win was the momentum we needed,” says Zachary. “We knew then that we were here to play.”

It shows, yet again in women’s sport, that investment pays off. Despite huge losses due to Covid-19, Exeter’s chairman, Tony Rowe has invested over £250,000 on the new women’s squad this season – more than any other Premier 15s club – money which has gone to paying players a £100 match fee and allowing at least 20 players to be contracted full-time. Money well spent? Just look at the results.

There has been growing pains but now we have beaten some of the best teams in the league, there is a unique opportunity to break into the top four.

Kate Zackary

“There has been growing pains at times,” says Zachary, “but now we have beaten some of the best teams in the league, we’ve got fantastic players and coaches, great support staff and a unique opportunity to break into the top four.”

It’s an exciting time for this bunch of players – strangers a year ago- and the journey is just beginning. But despite the excitement and adrenaline of the past few weeks, Zackary admits there’s a bigger goal on the horizon.

“The last four weeks have been a rollercoaster mentally and physically. It’s been emotionally draining because there’s so much excitement and hard work that’s been happening.

“Playing in this league is huge for our development. I originally came over with emerging winger Jennine Duncan and centre Gabby Cantorna- we are starting our own little gaggle of Americans here now! The World Cup was in our minds.

After shining in the 2017 World Cup, Zackary was disappointed that this year’s tournament was postponed. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

“I remember our very first day, arriving a month and a half after pre-season had started, wearing non-Exeter kit and standing like lost puppies in the corner of the gym. However, I knew this was a great opportunity to get to know Gabby and Jennine, two really key players for the future of the (USA) programme.”

Zackary admits the game is growing across the pond despite USA Rugby declaring bankruptcy early last year as coronavirus took its toll. The plan to peak in time for this year’s World Cup had to be hastily rewritten after this week’s announcement by World Rugby to postpone the tournament.

“When Rob (Cain) took over in 2018, he had a big plan for the women’s 15s programme and how we were going to hit the ground running for this September. We all really want to reach our potential. So when the news came through about the postponement, disappointment hit. It’s just been a crazy year and all about adaptability for us.

“Big decisions were made off the back of the tournament happening like deciding to come to England, changing lifestyles, jobs, moving, decisions to retire or start families, things like that amidst a pandemic and players wanted to put themselves in the best positions possible ahead of the World Cup, so selfishly for those reasons we wanted it to happen. But now we’re now just awaiting the next messaging.

Big decisions were made off the back of the tournament happening like deciding to come to England, changing lifestyles, jobs, moving, decisions to retire or start families, things like that amidst a pandemic and players wanted to put themselves in the best positions possible ahead of the World Cup, so selfishly for those reasons we wanted it to happen.

“It’s something we’ve been building up to, but considering we’re still even trying to get teams qualified, we weren’t sure about vaccines and people have been dealing with their loved ones or themselves getting sick, so I feel conflicted.

“You of course want the World Cup to happen but also want to create good, high quality rugby. The opportunity is for everyone to be able to come and compete at the highest level as it’s a global tournament to decide the best team in the world. 

“There are still some positives. Like, we have great staff within the USA set-up. They immediately set up a call to put some assurances in place regarding jobs and have really kept a positive mindset. We will just readjust our calendar, see what opportunities we have to get together and if it means we have a few more months to do it, then we will plan accordingly.”

While one dream has been delayed, another is ongoing. The Premier 15s needed a shake-up. Zackary and Exeter have provided it.

Zackary was speaking to Lucy Lomax

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