Stuart Townsend admits he is still coming to terms with being crowned a Premiership champion with club side Exeter Chiefs.
Having kicked off last season on the bench for loan club Cornish Pirates at Bedford’s Goldington Road, the talented scrum-half ended it by lifting English rugby’s top prize in front of a packed Twickenham crowd.
The 21-year-old was very much part and parcel of the all-conquering Chiefs outfit, who saw off rivals Wasps 23-20 in a pulsating final that went to extra time for only the second time in the competition’s history.
It capped a remarkable rise to the top for Townsend, who having been recalled to Sandy Park midway through the season following injuries to Will Chudley and Dave Lewis, took the opportunity to shine on the biggest of stages.
“It’s pretty surreal and I don’t even think now it’s probably sunk in that we’re Premiership champions,” said Townsend. “Seven years ago we were only just coming into the Premiership, but here we are as champions, it’s unreal really.”
Teaming up alongside experienced fly-half Gareth Steenson, the duo provided the vital link between Exeter’s renowned pack of forwards and their exciting back division to cut loose.
“This season has been massive for me,” added the former England Under-20s international. “Obviously I started it down at the Pirates, getting game time for them, when all of a sudden I was called back to the club when a couple of the boys went down injured.
“Initially I got a few benches, coming on in both Europe and the Premiership, and then I got a couple of starts. It was then that I thought ‘I’m loving this’ and that I wanted more. I really started to knuckle down, working hard in training – with Ricky Pellow especially – and thankfully I got more opportunities as the season went on. To get the start in the final was like a dream come true.”
On the lush green grass of Twickenham, Townsend did not disappoint as he helped the Chiefs to establish a half time lead, thanks in the main to tries from Jack Nowell and Phil Dollman.
Although Wasps countered in the second period, the Chiefs refused to throw in the towel and levelled things up just before full-time thanks to a penalty from the trusty boot of Steenson.
With little to choose between either side, it was in extra time that Devon’s finest started to flex their muscles. Sam Simmonds saw a potential try chalked off by the TV match official, before Steenson delivered a telling blow with just minutes remaining to seal victory for the Chiefs.
“I didn’t play in the final the previous year, but this year the mood was a lot different,” explained Townsend. “Whereas perhaps last season we were happy to get to the final, this time we knew we could be champions and could contest for the trophy. You could see in the final, especially in extra time, all the boys dug deep. As a group, we showed everything and come the end we came out as champions!”
But having tasted success at the very top end, Townsend and his Exeter team-mates are desperate to ensure the sparkle remains within camp and that next season does not run out of fizz.
“The challenge now is to back this season up,” said Townsend. “When we come back in for pre-season, we’ve got to be talking about not only backing this season up, but looking to improve and go even better next season.
“It’s a big challenge for us, we know that, but as a club we thrive on things like that. The key is to build on what we’ve achieved this season and look to take it to the next level. Europe, you have to say, has to be one of those things we look to improve on.”