Greg Holmes says Exeter will forever hold a special place in his heart after he this week bid a fond farewell to Devon and life with the Chiefs.
Holmes and wife Alana are heading home to Australia, four years after arriving in the Westcountry from former club, Queensland Reds.
During that time, the popular 37-year-old forward has been an integral part in helping the Chiefs to continue to establish themselves as a force, not just within the English game, but also on the European stage as well.
With his contract set to expire at the end of the season, Holmes was hoping his final year in Chiefs colours would end on a high note, particularly with the club flying high both in the Gallagher Premiership and the Heineken Champions Cup.
Sadly, the Covid-19 pandemic has hit globally and with rugby in this country shut down since the Chiefs beat Bath back in March, it’s meant the Aussie international could not bow out on the terms he had craved.
“In my head I was going to finish my career with the Chiefs, retire and then move on to the next stage of my life,” he said. “Obviously, Covid-19 stopped all of that, not just for me, but for people around the world. It’s certainly been strange times for all of us and it’s meant that I won’t be able to finish here in Exeter as I wanted.”
Instead, Holmes is heading back to Oz to resume his playing career on a short-term deal with Super Rugby side, Western Force.
“It’s an opportunity I wasn’t expecting,” he added. “This is a chance to make the trip home a little easier, but at the same time go out playing. When I spoke to Rob [Baxter] about it all - and this speaks volumes of the man he is - not only was he excited for me, but at the same time he was also trying to find a way where he could give guys like myself and others who are leaving the right send-off.
“Obviously, the times we’re living in mean that couldn’t happen, but even with all the stuff that’s going on and what he is trying to sort out on a day-to-day basis, he was still thinking of us blokes and that’s fantastic.”
Holmes leaves the Chiefs, however, not only feeling he’s becoming a better player, but also a better person.
“I look back to four years ago and I was a little apprehensive at the time,” he said. “I was going from a club which I had been at for 12 years to the other side of the world. Beforehand, you hear bits and pieces from people about the place, but it’s not until you are actually here that you realise what Exeter and the Chiefs are all about.
“These past four years have been amazing and this is a very special place to not only come and play rugby, but to live in and be part of a special rugby community. Some of my fondest rugby memories have come from my time here in Exeter and I’m just so glad I’ve been able to experience what I have - and be a small part in what has been a successful period for the club.”
With a healthy splattering of Aussies in and around him at Sandy Park, Holmes has always had that sense of home close at hand, but he insists the bond that exists within the Chiefs changing room is something that is virtually impossible to replicate elsewhere.
“The thing I’ll miss is the changing room and how much camaraderie there is amongst the group of players,” he added. “It’s hard to put into words what makes it work, but it just does. Being in that environment, enjoying the experiences you do each day, it’s just so enjoyable to be part of it all.
“Yes, a few strange things go on about the place, but that’s what makes it what it is. The culture that exists has been developed over a number of years now and it just gets developed by those who are within it. As I said, I can’t explain how much fun it is, but as a player - when you’re not feeling it one day - it lifts and it makes you want to get up and get into work.
“At the same time, it’s testament to the club itself that when the hard work needs to be done, the guys knuckle down and they work bloody hard. Getting that balance right is vitally important and if you weren’t winning games then it would soon unravel pretty quickly.
“I always say to people, it starts with the leadership of the club. From the very top with Tony Rowe and Rob, right down through the coaches, the players, the staff, everyone is buying into the same thing and it makes for a very successful formula. I look at what state the club is in now and how it’s developed, even in the short time I’ve been here, and I can’t see the Chiefs slowing down for some time.
“With the squad we have, the talent coming through, the plans for the stadium and in and around the ground, the club is only going to go from strength to strength. For sure, I’ll be keeping tabs from back home and sending messages to the boys.”