Baxter brothers are the Devon cream as Harlequins take a real whipping against Exeter
Exeter 42 Harlequins 28
If every rugby club is a brotherhood of sorts, some have flesh-and-blood brothers at their heart: Colin and Stan Meads – the Brothers Grim – meant pretty much everything to the New Zealand province of King Country in the 1960s, while the Frenchmen of Mont-de-Marsan still bask in the glory of Guy and André Boniface, half a century and more after they last combined in holy midfield majesty. Judging by events down Devon way, the Baxter boys wield the same kind of influence.
Talk about two blokes from the same family covering all the bases. In what may come to be seen as one of the defining performances of this Premiership season, Exeter smeared the reigning champions from one end of the county to the other, inflicting on Harlequins a 42-28 defeat that was their most comprehensive since they were steamrollered at Northampton nine long months ago. What was more, they did it by playing the Londoners at their own game: a tactical triumph that put Rob Baxter, the head coach, a step closer to West Country canonisation.
And which of his players was most effective at implementing the strategy? There were significant contributions in every department, from the Wallaby lock Dean Mumm and the England flanker Tom Johnson up front to Gareth Steenson and Jason Shoemark among the inside backs, but the main man was Baxter Minor, AKA Rich Baxter, the long-serving No 8 (not that the word "minor" lends itself easily to a hulking great farmer who stands 6ft 4in in his wellies and tips the scales at 16st-plus).
Baxter the not-so-younger is well into his 35th year, an age at which most forwards of his stamp crave the rain, the mud, the arm-wrestle. Here, on fast going under a blinding autumn sun, he proved beyond doubt that he could play up-tempo every bit as well as he plays down-beat. The man was everywhere, frequently all at once, and by way of reinforcing the point, he went the full 80 minutes.
"How can I go around shouting about my own brother in the press?" asked Baxter the Elder, before doing just that. "He's the glue that holds the team together. There's a reality to Rich" – the word "reality" and its derivatives feature a great deal in the coach's conversation – "and it's this: his rugby has always been understated. But he's normally our top contact guy, whether you're talking about tackles or carries or clear-outs.
"It's also the case that he spends very little time in the physio room, and that goes back to chucking around bales of hay by the thousand and digging hundreds of holes. In my view, he's been one of the form back-rowers in the Premiership since we made it into this league. I hope he goes on for a good while longer." Yet there was more to Baxter Junior's display, and that of his principal henchmen, than their startling ability to keep pace with the quickest side in the land and then accelerate past them. They out-muscled and out-thought them too.
Those sides serious about beating Quins in recent months, with the possible exception of Toulouse, who prevailed at the Stoop in last season's Heineken Cup, have set out to suffocate them: Saracens, who knocked them off their perch eight days ago, might have taken the field armed with pillow-cases and plastic bags, so intent were they on securing victory by asphyxiation. Exeter did it differently. They worked out what Quins would try to do to them, and did it better.
And therein lay the importance of the Devonians' five-try success, constructed as it was on the twin foundations of a clever close-quarter passing game and a bold commitment to using the full width of the field. They proved to the rest of the Premiership – not just the top-of-the-ground outfits like Gloucester and London Irish, but to more conservative teams like Sarries and Bath and Worcester – that being on the side of the angels does not automatically make you the losing side.
According to Baxter the coach, this is the way Exeter will continue to play, given half a chance. "Yes, we made errors – mistakes that gave the game a seesaw momentum for a while," he said. "But it's very important to us that we develop a style the players can enjoy, one that doesn't weigh them down. It doesn't mean we'll just go out and throw the ball around: there has to be some reality about it. But this is our preferred way of playing. It's what we want to do."
While Quins claimed three tries of their own, only the second was the fruit of their attacking labours: the first came from a Nick Evans chargedown; the third from an interception by poor Rory Clegg, who otherwise endured all manner of trials and tribulations. In truth, the final scoreline could have been far more humiliating, as their rugby director Conor O'Shea readily acknowledged in an after-match address sharp enough to cut through reinforced concrete at a dozen paces.
"To lose a game because you're not physical enough is unacceptable," he said, describing himself as "pretty furious" and promising that having been taught this lesson his players would bloody well learn it or face the consequences. "It's a mindset thing," he continued, with a distinct lack of customary geniality. "Exeter had the mindset to win that match. We didn't."
All of which pointed to two conclusions: first, that this Premiership campaign is likely to be a whole lot less predictable, both at the top end and the bottom, than most rugby folk imagined at the beginning of September; and second, that if Clermont Auvergne, one of the powerhouses of the European game, take liberties when they cross the Channel to play Exeter at Sandy Park in 12 days' time, their hosts' fraternity will ensure there is no equality.
Scorers: Exeter Tries Shoemark 2, Sturgess, White, Naqelevuki. Conversions Steenson 4. Penalties Steenson 3. Harlequins Tries Evans, Monye, Dickson. Conversions Evans, Clegg. Penalties Evans 2, Clegg.
Exeter: L Arscott (S Naqelevuki 27); I Whitten, P Dollman, J Shoemark (I Mieres 76), M Jess; G Steenson, H Thomas (W Chudley 58); B Sturgess (B Moon 69), S Alcott (N Clark 61), C Rimmer (C Budgen 78), D Mumm, J Hanks (A Muldowney 61), T Johnson, B White (D Ewers 68), R Baxter (capt).
Harlequins: M Brown (O Lindsay-Hague 69); S Stegmann, M Hopper, J Turner-Hall, U Monye; N Evans (R Clegg 43), K Dickson (D Care 58); M Lambert (J Marler 48), J Gray, J Johnston (W Collier 68), O Kohn, G Robson (C Matthews 27), T Guest (M Fa'asavalu 43), C Robshaw (capt), N Easter (R Buchanan 68).
Referee: M Fox (Leicestershire).
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