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Exeter Chiefs’ Tom Johnson gearing up for the final lap

Tom Johnson has witnessed first-hand an extraordinary transformation during his eight seasons with Exeter Chiefs and the back row forward has no intention of the fairytale slowing down anytime soon.

When Johnson cantered onto the field in Durban against South Africa in 2012, he was Exeter’s first full England cap since 1964, but fast forward four years and things could not be more different.

Jack Nowell and Luke Cowan-Dickie are Grand Slam winners, Henry Slade has played in a Rugby World cup – all are young players and could form the cornerstone of England’s quest to win the 2019 World Cup, and Johnson could not be happier at the revolution turning tides in Devon.

Though Rob Baxter’s men lost out in their first Champions Cup quarter-final against Wasps – Charles Piutau’s final-play converted score denying them what would have been a famous win – it is a mark of their progress.    

As they prepare to face Wasps again at Sandy Park, with the honours split at one apiece from two fixtures at the Ricoh, Johnson knows Exeter must continue to do what has got them to where they are now – work hard and trust themselves.

"The problem with Wasps is that if you try to shackle one player then there are so many other players who can pop up and change the game for them," said Johnson, who was speaking at an Aviva Tackling Numbers event in Exeter.

"It is more a case of concentrating on ourselves, not Wasps or Nathan Hughes, we just need to try and take the chances that are there and hopefully we can get the win and try and get that home semi-final.

"It is fantastic, it is what the club has been building towards, we’re going to be in the semi-finals and morale is pretty good.

"The Prem boys had last weekend off with the European games and it was good for everyone to recharge going into this week."
Aviva Tackling Numbers is an innovative programme – run in partnership with Premiership Rugby –  for 7-9 year olds which makes learning about numbers and financial education fun and engaging.

The programme is delivered by Aviva Premiership Rugby clubs and Johnson joined Exeter team mate Thomas Waldrom to take part in a session with the children.

"Just playing rugby and getting the kids involved in such a worthwhile scheme is so important," said Johnson.  

"And the maths that they are doing in the classroom, they can see how it is related to what they were doing outside and it is just a more fun way of educating the next generation."

Chiefs missed out on a first-ever Aviva Premiership semi-final in the last round of matches in 2015 and instead of allowing hard-earned momentum to fizzle out, Baxter has continued to add seasoned internationals such as Geoff Parling to a squad brimming with youthful enthusiasm.

Johnson knows Baxter better than most, having been an integral part of the side that won promotion to the Aviva Premiership and played every game of Chiefs’ first two Premiership seasons.

The all-action flanker, who won eight England caps, says Baxter must be applauded for developing the youngsters who have helped to turn Chiefs from also-rans to title-contenders.

"He speaks his mind and he says everything in black and white and though he has moved away from having a direct hand in everything, he takes more of an overview," the 33-year-old said.

"I think obviously he is very hard working and a lot of players sense that he doesn’t shirk responsibility which is huge for everyone.

"Those youngsters – Slade, Cowan-Dickie, Nowell – were always going through, but I think credit had to go to the coaching team for giving them the opportunity when they did and making sure they get the experience, but don’t get ahead of themselves."

Tom Johnson was speaking at an Aviva Tackling Numbers session. In partnership with Premiership Rugby, #AvivaTacklingNumbers helps 7-9 year olds put foundations in place for better financial skills later in life through the power of rugby. Take a maths test at aviva.co.uk/tacklingnumbers for the chance to win Aviva Premiership Rugby Final tickets.
 

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