Cantorna and Exeter focused on themselves as champions come to town
Sandy Park will host an early season Allianz Premiership Women’s Rugby blockbuster on Saturday as Exeter Chiefs face champions Gloucester-Hartpury for the first time since losing out on the title to the cherry and whites in June.
Defeat at Kingsholm was particularly painful for those Chiefs, including centre Gabby Cantorna, who had experienced the same fate in the showpiece match against Saracens 12 months earlier.
But, while Chiefs supporters may well arrive in the stands thirsty for a shot of revenge to lubricate their festive celebrations, Cantorna insists that is not an emotion that is fuelling the players.
“We’re not really dwelling on the past,” the USA international tells RugbyPass.
“I think something that we’ve learned obviously from the past two seasons of not winning in the final, is that if you just think all about what happened last year, it doesn’t necessarily set you up for success moving forward.
“So, we’re just focused on the challenge in front of us and hopefully executing the way that we want to play and putting our stamp on the game so that as a squad, you know, we can keep moving into the season and take our learnings with us.”
Although, as is only natural, Cantorna says that different players within the squad dealt with June’s final defeat “in their own ways”, there has been a concerted effort to use the experience as a positive on their quest for that elusive first title.
Before the current campaign got under way, the returning members of last season’s squad held a frank meeting to help draw a line under the disappointment.
“Just so that we could close that circle and really connect with how everyone in the squad was feeling.
“We were just talking about how it had made all of us feel,” Cantorna adds.
“Some people were frustrated, people were angry, some people were sad. Some people felt like they had no connection to the group that was playing.
“So, I think it was more of us understanding how we wanted to be as a team and how we wanted to be as a knit unit, and we wanted that to spread throughout the whole squad.
“Obviously the goal is to win the competition every time that you play in a competition but it’s not necessarily what we were talking about. We were talking about fulfilling everyone and making sure that everyone’s getting something out of that; from the younger players to the older players, regardless of who’s involved on the weekend.
“And I think that’s a real positive change for us that we’re focused on, you know, us as a group instead of always the outcomes.”
As the Chiefs are proving so far this season, results often take care of themselves when a talented and committed squad is pulling in the same direction.
Despite watching a number of players, Cantorna’s USA colleagues Kate Zackary and Charli Jacoby among them, head for the Sandy Park exit door over the off-season, Exeter have maintained their ability to amass victories.
Three of them have arrived in as many matches this season, each secured with a try bonus point to leave the Chiefs behind Saracens only on points difference at the top of the nascent standings.
“We’re definitely different from the team last season,” Cantorna says. “I think we’ve found little bits and pieces that we enjoy and again, we’re taking care of the off-field bits so that on-field it translates well.
“So, I think as a whole it has a different feel, but it’s a nice and comforting feel and I feel like it comes through the staff and the players. So, we’re all connected now.”
Those connections will certainly be tested by Gloucester-Hartpury on Saturday afternoon. The champions have begun the season with two wins from two and are the only team in the league to hold the edge in their historic head-to-head with the Chiefs.
But as Cantorna attempts to steer Exeter to only their fourth victory in nine league meetings with Gloucester-Hartpury, she will take motivation from four people sat in the Sandy Park stands.
Her mum and dad arrive in Devon on Friday at the start of a festive trip to see their daughter and will be sat alongside her “fake English parents”, the couple with whom Cantorna was billeted when she first arrived in Exeter more than three years ago.
“My dad’s actually a Munster fan so he wanted to come and watch the men play Munster on Sunday as well. So, it works out for everyone,” Cantorna says, laughing.
“I love when they come to watch and [my dad] is definitely one of the reasons that I started playing the game. He coached me in high school, and I had watched him play when I was younger.
“So, they are very supportive and are lucky they’re at a point in their careers where they’re able to get the time off to come and see me and watch me play. I know they’re proud of me and it makes me proud to be able to give them those experiences as well.
“Every time they come, I love it and they’re more than good supporters. They’re great supporters.”
Cantorna admits neither she nor head coach Susie Appleby expected her to stay in Exeter so long when she first arrived with international team-mates Jennine Duncan and Zackary in September 2020.
Exeter were a team still being built, yet to play their first Premier 15s match. The Covid-19 pandemic, meanwhile, placed huge restrictions on what the American trio and their new team-mates could do outside of training and matches.
Fast forward a little over three years, though, and the 28-year-old has become an adopted Devonian.
On the pitch, Cantorna has racked up 51 appearances and 267 points in the Chiefs jersey. Off it, she has laid down roots, coaching Sidmouth women’s team and exploring the county through its hills, beaches and coastal paths.
“I actually think the biggest thing that helped me settle was the fact that it was Covid because we couldn’t go anywhere,” Cantorna explains.
“The only people we were able to hang out with was ourselves, so you had to get to know your team-mates and I think that’s what builds a strong basis of friendship among the girls on the team. And then I think it’s carried through the other years.
“And obviously I got to spend a lot of time in nature because that was one of the only things you could really get out and do. So, I saw a lot of the area before the shops and the restaurants were open, so I was able to explore and make those friends.”
Another big factor has been her coach, Appleby. “I love playing under Susie. She’s very passionate,” Cantorna says.
“She is a massive advocate for us in the club as well as just the women’s game as a whole and I think, you know, she’s really funny as well. So, she has her little moments where she’ll make a nice joke and I enjoy working with her and being coached by her.
“So, I think, you know, obviously that’s why I’m still here. I like the coaching set up and her and I get along, we give each other space but we also have a good relationship.”
It is a bond that should continue for another couple of years at least. Cantorna’s current deal runs until 2025 and the next Women’s Rugby World Cup, but she is unsure what the future holds beyond the showpiece tournament.
“One of my goals was to reach my 50th appearance for Exeter, which is past. So that was a big moment for me personally,” Cantorna says.
“Internationally, obviously my eyes would be on the next World Cup coming up, but past that I mean, I’m still trying to assess further outside goals. I’m not sure.
“To be honest, I’m not sure how long I want to play for or if I want to play as long as possible. I haven’t really come up with a good answer to that. I’m on a two-year deal, so I’ll be here next season as well.
“So, through the World Cup cycle and then I’ll have to have a big think about what comes after that.”
Chiefs fans will hope that if Cantorna does leave Exeter after the next World Cup, she does so with a PWR winner’s medal tucked safely into her luggage.
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