You certainly wouldn’t begrudge Dave Dennis getting his hands on the Aviva Premiership trophy next weekend. The former NSW Waratahs captain is now two games away from helping Exeter Chiefs towards their maiden English title in his first season at the club, and should he do so from the heart of the on-field battle, it would be a fitting reward for the man who was forced to watch his Waratah team mates carve out their own place in history in the Super Rugby grand final in 2014, from the stands.
Having already suffered two career-threatening ACL injuries early in his career, Dennis’ determination and ambition to push on and become an established Super Rugby player, and then his ascension to the coveted role of skipper for his state, was admirable. So seeing that opportunity to lead the best Waratah team of a generation to glory taken away from him, when he suffered a third ACL just three games out from the finals series three years ago, was an unjust and particularly cruel sporting fate to witness.
He did lift the trophy of course, stand-in skipper Michael Hooper adamant that his universally popular predecessor should join him on the victory dais to share the celebrations, and the all-important raising of the elusive silverware to the acclaim of a jubilant 62,000 crowd at ANZ Stadium. But he never truly felt a part of it all on the night.
“2014 was an amazing experience, but not being out on the pitch still eats at me a bit,” he confessed to Behind the Ruck earlier this week. “Any team I play in I want to be successful, and to win the first ever title with the Chiefs, and be out there with the team, would be amazing.”
Standing in their way in tonight’s semi-final however, are the small matter of double-European champions Saracens. Having lifted a second successive Champions Cup trophy last weekend with a sterling effort to defeat French heavyweights Clermont Auvergne, the North London-based side are bursting with confidence, and hungry for another domestic title. Packed with internationals and newly-named British & Irish Lions, they have been the benchmark side in England over the last few seasons, and Dennis is under no illusions as to the fact that the Chiefs will have to bring their absolute best to the party when the opening whistle is blown.
“We will have to play our game as well as we possibly can, be accurate, be physical and attack them,” he rallies. “They’re a great team with a number of internationals and world class players, and have had great success recently. In saying that, we are confident where we are at as a team, and we will be giving everything in this semi-final.”
The very fact that Exeter are in this position to strike for glory at the business end of the season, flies somewhat in the face of their inauspicious start to the campaign. Just over three months after losing their inaugural Premiership final – ominously to Saracens – last May, they kicked off the 2016/17 season in sluggish fashion with a paltry two wins from their first seven games. For a side that only made it into the top tier of English rugby for the first time as recently as 2009, their rapid elevation to the top table had proved to be a heady ride.
“I would say it (the poor start) was due to a bit of a hangover from the Premiership final,” says Dennis. “It was a great achievement that not many had predicted, but the playing group probably became a little too comfortable with that. It wasn’t until about round eight when we sat down and reassessed things, that we started to improve.”
For Dennis too, while the shift of his young family from life in the sun near Sydney’s northern beaches to the rural beauty but inclement weather of South-West England has been relatively painless, the transition from the high octane pace of Super Rugby to the traditionally more attritional nature of the Aviva Premiership, has taken some time to adjust to.
“We’ve settled in really well since arriving in August,” he confirms. “We’re loving life in the South West, exploring the local coastal towns, finding plenty of village pubs and sampling the local ales. The club has a great culture and an environment that has a nice balance between working hard and having a good time.
“The weather is what it is. I didn’t come over expecting sunshine like Australia, so I have handled it fine, albeit a few tough days around Christmas where it was bitterly cold. Winter went surprisingly quickly though, the hardest part was adjusting to the sun setting around 4pm. But on the flip side I am now looking forward to the long summer evenings. Sometimes I have found myself laughing during training when the rain is coming in sideways and it’s below zero!
“Rugby-wise I feel I was a little slow picking up things as there are many differences. For example, the defensive system is the opposite of how we defended at the Waratahs, and things like that take time and can only really be learnt in game situations. Thankfully, I’m feeling comfortable now at the right end of the season.”
Helping him settle in was the band of countrymen that have forged a green and gold stronghold at the club, with the Chiefs having become a happy home from home for several Aussies in recent times. Dennis’ ex-Waratahs team mate Dean Mumm blazed the trail as a successful and well–respected leader during his tenure between 2012-15, and there are no less than six current team mates also hailing from Down Under.
Former Wallabies Greg Holmes and Lachie Turner are joined by ex-Brumbies Julian Salvi and Ben White, while former Eastwood and Sydney University 1st graders Mitch Lees and Ollie Atkins respectively, are in the process of seeking representation in the colours of their English (Lees), and Scottish (Atkins) ancestors. With the Wallabies having lost four in a row to their old enemy in white in 2016, they’ve had to stick together.
“I would say the greatest attraction to the Chiefs for Aussie players is that they are a very ambitious club who are constantly striving for success,” offers Dennis. “They also play an attacking style of rugby, and the regions of Devon and Cornwall have close similarities to Australia – except for the water temperature in the sea!
“But it is nice to have the comfort of a few Aussie boys in the sheds to back me up when I am copping banter from the English lads!”
It was Dean Mumm that drew his fellow forwards’ attention to Exeter in the first place, once he had decided it was time to seek pastures new. But after nine years in the Cambridge Blue jersey of his state, and as the incumbent captain, it was never going to be the easiest of goodbyes.
“It was always going to be an emotional time leaving the Tahs, whether that was last year or if I finished my career there,” says Dennis. “In saying that, I have always wanted to experience a different rugby culture and Exeter provides that. I felt I needed to put myself in a foreign environment to continue to grow as a player, and I could also sense a changing of the guard at the Tahs in some respects with a lot of young players coming through, which made the time to leave feel right. The change has definitely given me new challenges, which tends to keep pushing you as a player.”
With offers on the table from both France and Japan, Dennis was sold on a move to the Chiefs from the moment he met impressive head coach Rob Baxter. The former Chiefs player has been at the helm since 2009, where he led the team into the promised land of the Premiership in his first year. Every season since on his watch has been one of steady progress, to the point where they are now an established top level side mixing it with the big boys of Saracens, Wasps, Bath, Leicester and Northampton with aplomb. But realistically, considering their relatively recent rise to prominence from the lower leagues, and the size of their budget by comparison to their fellow contenders, they are punching incredibly above their weight.
“Exeter was the first real opportunity, communication with Rob Baxter started well in advance and it just felt right from the beginning,” recalls Dennis. “’Mummy’ sold the area and the city of Exeter to me, but it was more through conversations with Rob around where he said the club was going and what my role would be within it. His greatest strength is his knowledge and understanding of the club having played for so long here, and his family have very strong ties to the Chiefs.
“He balances hard work and the off-field things really well and keeps all the squad on its toes through rotation of selections. He has a clear vision of what he wants at the club and sticks to it, and he also expressed that he thought he could improve me as a player, and I feel as though he has done that. Along with Rob Hunter (forwards coach), they have helped with my set-piece and tight play, as it is a big focus over here, and I feel that has helped me become a more rounded player.”
After a sticky start for both the club and their new acquisition, things turned around rather nicely through mid-season and have built to the point where the Chiefs finished the regular season as the form team in the country, with eight successive bonus points wins leading them to a second place finish and a home semi-final. They are one of many teams lighting up the Premiership with a positive attacking intent, and changing the external perception that it is a cold, wet and muddy bash-and-barge-fest every week.
“It’s a very physical league and there’s a huge emphasis on the set–piece, but it can also actually be quite open and there are long periods with ball in play time similar to Super Rugby,” observes Dennis. “I think every team in the Premiership realises that you now have to go out and win games of rugby, rather than get into a slog and hope for a grinding tight game. At Exeter we have a clear, attacking mindset, and it’s a great style of rugby to play.”
So, what does he put their recent run of blistering form down to?
“Belief in our attacking mind set, and constantly working hard throughout the week and during the game. This is also a really good bunch of boys, and I would say that’s the main reason the club is experiencing success. I have always believed that if you have good people involved, not only will you have a good time, but you will also achieve great things together.”
With a Saracens team lining up against them tomorrow that contains the guile and execution of Owen Farrell, the power and grunt of the Vunipola brothers, the craft and work rate of Maro Itoje and George Kruis, and the finishing power of Marcelo Bosch and Chris Ashton, they will need to produce ‘great things’ for 80 minutes in order to reach another title decider. Having gone down 28-20 in last year’s final, the Chiefs lost and drew their two league encounters with ‘Sarries’ this season. But Dennis believes those results are largely irrelevant now.
“It will be a huge challenge against Itoje and Kruis but it is why I play the game, to challenge myself against the best. You can look back at the previous games against them somewhat, but the reality is we have one chance to beat them and progress to the final, and that’s how we are treating the game.”
Should the Chiefs succeed, they will likely face Minor Premiers Wasps in next week’s big dance at Twickenham – another team chock-full of expensively assembled stars. Two huge challenges indeed, but if the rugby gods have any kind of conscience, they will see to it that one of the most likeable guys in the game gets to genuinely enjoy the triumphant title celebrations that were so unfairly denied him before.
If they don’t, he’ll damn well keep on trying for as long as he can, and wherever the game takes him. This Chief wants a few more scalps before he hangs up the boots.
“Being over here has really given me a shot in the arm and I’m very keen to play this great game for as long as my body allows,” smiles Dennis. “I’ve got another year or two with the Chiefs but after that I’m not ruling out anything at this stage. If the stars aligned I could go back to the Tahs maybe, or try some sushi in Japan or maybe a few snails in France!”