EXETER Chiefs scrum-half Jack Maunder could be excused for feeling miffed right now. After playing a huge hand in Chiefs’ Premiership title success last season and being capped on England’s subsequent tour of Argentina, the 20-year-old home-grown pivot has tasted just 21 minutes of league action this season – in the first game at Gloucester!
Since then, a succession of niggling injuries have confined Maunder to a supporting role behind regular No.9s Nic White and Will Chudley – a task shared by another of last year’s shining lights, Stu Townsend – thereby scuppering any hopes of a rapid England recall.
Happily for Chiefs fans, rather than chucking his toys out of the pram and demanding a transfer, as some of our overpaid, prima-donna footballers might have done, Maunder has turned his nose to the grindstone and is viewing his current predicament as a positive.
Though admitting his frustration, Maunder told me: “Last season with Chiefs and the summer with England were awesome but I knew that this year wasn’t exactly going to be the same and there’d be different stuff going on and new challenges I’d have to face.
“I had a good couple of games in pre-season and then played at Gloucester, but since then I’ve had a few niggles and I’m at a stage of my career now where my body’s been maturing and I’ve been getting more used to adult rugby week-in, week-out.
“It’s been tough not being in the first team but it’s been more about development and making sure my body can withstand the rigours of top-class rugby. Hopefully, in six or seven years I’ll look back on this season as the one where I got my body right.”
Maunder added: “The way things happened last year was through injury to others really. The amount I played spiralled upwards and it was more than you’d probably expect as a 19-year-old.
“I was fully aware of that throughout and although I enjoyed it at the time, I knew when I got back into pre-season that there’d be four first team No.9s here, including new signing Nic White, and it would be about pushing on and setting new goals.
“The slate was clean and there’s a little more to it than just playing. Nic and Will Chudley have been doing so well, but it creates good, healthy competition and, whilst it’s been an interesting year, I’m taking a positive view that it’ll do me good in future.”
Whilst Aussie star White is standing in his way – a slightly worrying development if you are an England fan – Maunder is lapping up the learning experience alongside a man who has quickly emerged as a firm crowd favourite at Sandy Park.
Maunder said: “There’s never been a foreign No.9 at the club in my time here and in other countries people have different thoughts on the game.
“Nic’s played many times for Australia and he’s probably getting a bit annoyed with me for asking so many questions, but he’s really been helping me with my big boxkicking and exit strategies, which have been areas I’ve needed to work on.
“I’m just trying to get my basics sorted because what propelled me forward last year was making good decisions.
‘The scrum-half competition at Chiefs is fierce but I’m desperate to force my way back in and move my career on again.”
There is a scrumhalf factory that is developing at Chiefs and Maunder is more than aware of the task he faces – not least of all from younger brother Sam, 18, who recently captained Exeter’s U18s.
Jack said: “As well as our four senior No.9s, it’s a real scrum-half production factory. Sam’s grown a bit and is physically maturing, Joe Snow’s been ripping it up for Plymouth and we’ve got James Tait, who’s now challenging Sam in his age group.”
The challenge is not just at club level either, with Maunder observing: “Across the Premiership, when you look at all the teams the No.9 is one of their top players, but that’s great because it means you’re challenging yourself against the best.
“It’s the quickest way of getting better and you can take inspiration from what happens to others. For example, we’ve seen Ben Vellacott at Gloucester having a sniff with England and it’s great to know Eddie Jones is looking at young nines.”
If, as is rumoured, Will Chudley moves on at the end of this season, that will open up one senior scrumhalf spot at Exeter. One thing for sure, though, is that there will be some serious selection headaches for the No.9 position at Chiefs.
Neale Harvey is an award-winning writer for the weekly Rugby Paper…