Exeter Chiefs: US star Gabby Cantorna reveals how COVID-19 led her to England

Gabby Cantorna

Stood over a crucial conversion in the 78th minute of the Premier 15s semi-final, Exeter’s Gabby Cantorna didn’t feel the pressure. 

Instead, she stuck to her usual routine, took her time and nonchalantly slotted home the two extra points, which put the Chiefs more than a penalty ahead of the Bristol Bears. 

“Maybe I should have thought about it more,” the centre admitted to GiveMeSport Women. “But I would say I’m less when I’m under pressure. I think it’s one of those things that’s come with practice over the years.” 

Moments after nailing the conversion, the final whistle sounded and Exeter sealed their spot in the final at Sixways on June, 3rd. It’s a remarkable achievement for a side that was only formed in 2019, though they made hard work of it. 

At one stage of the match, Exeter were 21 points to the good, only to fall 24-21 behind with just seven minutes to play. Yet, the Chiefs found a way to rally themselves and scored a last gasp try thanks to winger Jennine Detiveaux. 

Gabby Cantorna for Exeter Chiefs

“There wasn’t really a sense of panic in the group,” Cantorna stressed. “It was more just that we knew what we needed to do. We needed to get ourselves up the field. We needed to stay out of the breakdown, stick to what we know and eventually, we just kind of thought we’d get where we needed to go. So I have to say it was really well done by our leadership group.”

In truth, this success is something few anticipated coming so quickly. Yet, Cantorna emphasised that everyone has “pushed” themselves to the limit, which has ultimately paid dividends. 

I think for a lot of us, we were really happy to be in the league, happy to be here as a whole and just competing and trying to pay respect to the Exeter brand of rugby that has come to be known to this area. 

“This year coming in it was a real thought of ours that we could make the top four if we wanted it badly enough. And that’s kind of what we pushed ourselves to do and I think that’s what ended up getting us here [to the final] in the long run.”

Growing up in Pennsylvania, Cantorna’s love for the game stemmed from her father who played at Law school, as well as her older sister, who played in high school. She first started playing the game at 14 and went on to accept a place at Pennsylvania State University –– a college renowned for its rugby program. 

Over the next five years, the Exeter centre went on to win four National College Championships and was awarded the D1 Elite National Championship MVP award in 2017. During this period, Cantorna’s love for the game strengthened and she began to contemplate rugby as a career option.

Gabby Cantorna

“That’s kind of where I have to say my love for the sport really ignited. I started enjoying the physical aspects of it, which I hadn’t enjoyed before and through that, I got invited to play Collegiate All American, which is like Britain’s version of age-grade representation.” 

Despite her desire to pursue rugby full-time, Cantorna never envisaged playing in England at first.

“It wasn’t in my plans,” she revealed. “I didn’t think that it was something that I could really ever accomplish if that makes sense.”

Indeed, it wasn’t until COVID hit that the chance came around for the Chiefs star. Cantorna had been working for USA Rugby in the main offices but lost her job when the pandemic first struck. US national team coach Rob Cain sent footage of the centre over to England and that prompted clubs to register interest in the American. 

“At the time, I said yes, because I had nothing else to do. I wasn’t really sure anything would come from it. But obviously, in the end, it did. 

“So again, it’s just one of those things that I didn’t actually think was going to ever happen to me. And I’m very grateful that it has because I do love being over here and I love the team and the area and all the people that I’ve met so far.”

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Since joining Exeter, Cantorna has become the Chiefs’ record point scorer –– passing more than 150 points this year. And having swapped Penn State for the Premier 15s, she is ready to try and make history in the final this week. 

Watch the final of the Allianz Premier 15s between Saracens and Exeter Chiefs live on Friday 3rd June from 14:30 on BT Sport 1. For more info visit btsport.com

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