Exeter have received a double boost in the buildup to the European Champions Cup final against Racing 92, with all their players and staff testing negative for coronavirus and their England wing Jack Nowell also available for selection for Saturday’s showdown in Bristol.
Rob Baxter, the Chiefs’ director of rugby, said the club’s latest round of testing on Tuesday revealed a clean bill of health while Nowell, who missed last weekend’s Premiership semi-final against Bath with a foot problem, is back in training. It means Exeter, preparing for the first European final in the club’s history, will be choosing from a fully-loaded squad.
Even if it is decided to deploy Nowell from the bench, the Chiefs can still call upon the in-form Tom O’Flaherty and Olly Woodburn, while Baxter has also allayed fears over the captain Joe Simmonds, who came off before the end against Bath. “Every player who hobbled or limped off is available,” he said. “We were fortunate that in the last quarter of an hour we were comfortable enough on the scoreboard not to have to risk people staying on. Jonny Gray and Henry Slade are in full training, Joe Simmonds is training fully and so is Olly Woodburn. We are selecting from a full-strength side.”
The 27-year-old Nowell, who picked up his injury late in the European semi-final against Toulouse, will only start if the coaching staff are confident he is 100% ready. “I don’t think I have seen a winger play a better game in the Premiership final than Jack Nowell did last season,” Baxter said. “You know what he’s capable of doing but we have to watch him train and assess it carefully to make sure he’s at the level to perform like that. We’ve just got make sure we come up with the honest and best decision.”
The latest update from Racing, whose final buildup was initially disrupted by a rash of positive Covid-19 tests, is that the French club have no new infections following rounds of testing last Friday and on Monday. They have been preparing in camp in Corsica from where they will head directly to Bristol on Thursday.
It should mean that the final can proceed as scheduled and that a medical meeting planned for Thursday is merely a formality. “We are aware that they had a large number of [positive] Covid tests,” said Baxter. “We have a medical review meeting planned in for tomorrow morning … but we haven’t got any so the reality is that the meeting will only go ahead if Racing have any further issues. We certainly haven’t got a spy in their camp and haven’t been able to pick up any further information.”
Baxter acknowledged, though, that it has been a worrying couple of days, with infection rates having risen sharply in Exeter over the past 10 days. “We get tested on a Tuesday morning and didn’t start hearing the results until 5.20am this morning. I can tell you virtually all the staff were sat by their phones from 5am. It’s always an interesting period of time, particularly as we’ve got to bigger and bigger games.”