Rob Baxter refuses to grumble after Exeter miss out to Saracens

PREMIERSHIP ROUND-UP: Mark Cueto played his last game for Sale on Saturday

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The Independent Online

Exeter’s first reaction on winning at Saracens in the penultimate round of Premiership matches was to celebrate the fact that their hopes and dreams of making a first appearance in the tournament’s knock-out stage remained in their own hands. The problem? It was not a fact that added up to a row of beans.

The West Countrymen could hardly have done more in pursuit of a play-off place than beat Sale by the not inconsiderable margin of  44-16 in front of a record crowd at Sandy Park.

It was, after all, a competitive contest: the northerners travelled south determined not to be rolled over like a bunch of seven-stone weaklings – had it been otherwise, their boss Steve Diamond would not have blown a gasket at the end of the game and left the fair county of Devon in a fearful strop – and it was a measure of their frustration that three of their number were shown disciplinary cards of varying colours.

But the home side could have fielded a back division featuring Serge Blanco, Jonah Lomu, Gareth Edwards and Superman and still failed to keep scoring pace with a Saracens side who were always going to feast on the relegated carcass of a no-strength London Welsh. Saracens won 68-17, with Chris Ashton scoring four tries. Like it or not, Exeter’s goose was cooked when Northampton fielded a second-string team at Leicester and lost 14-22.

That decision generated a good deal of resentment among rugby followers, all of it entirely understandable. Northampton’s selection undeniably bent the final round of matches out of shape, and it was also possible to argue that along with those other clubs who picked shadow teams – Gloucester, for instance – they short-changed the paying public, who had shelled out good money in the reasonable expectation that they would be watching full-on fixtures rather than lopsided ones.

Not that Rob Baxter, the Exeter head coach, cried “foul”, even though he emerged as the clear loser.

“Northampton had earned themselves the right to do what they wanted by finishing top of the league,” he said. “I can’t complain. The year we won promotion into the Premiership, we effectively threw three games midway through the season by hitting the gym in an effort to make sure we’d be at our fittest come the end of the campaign. Northampton rested their top players ahead of the semi-finals; Bath chose to go the opposite way. I’ll be interested to see who is proved right.”

Instead of beefing about matters outside his control, Baxter spent most of his time honouring the contribution of the Australia lock Dean Mumm, who is heading home to Sydney in a bid to make the Wallaby squad for the World Cup. “It’s been a privilege to work with someone who has proved to be a great man, someone with a genuine understanding of the club and where its heartbeat lay,” the coach said. “To my mind, that’s been more important to us than his qualities as a player. I believe we can cope with Dean moving on, but he’s been magnificent for us.”

Mumm showed the best of himself in his final appearance and that best was very good indeed – comfortably good enough to be of concern to England, who may well have to beat the Wallabies to find a way out of their World Cup pool. Baxter is not alone in thinking the Australians would benefit significantly from his departing captain’s grasp of the English game.

On the subject of departures, the admirable Mark Cueto had the stage to himself as he called time on a long career at Sale – one that brought him 55 England caps, a Lions Test appearance and an unusual level of popularity across the union spectrum that was not only a verdict on his gifts as a wing of undisputed international quality but also a reflection of his good-humoured approachability in an age of separation between players and spectators.

Cueto left the field alone not because of a substitution, but because he was dispatched to the sin-bin for a deliberate knock-on. If Wayne Barnes, the referee, was merely playing it by the book, it would have been fair enough. If he took it upon himself to give the man a proper send-off, as well as a sending-off, he deserves to be congratulated for his theatrical instinct.

Those who deserve no congratulations whatsoever are the Premiership chairmen who continue to hide behind a confidentiality agreement surrounding the decision to suspend the investigation into an alleged breach of the salary cap by Saracens. Reports over the weekend accused Northampton of being among the most enthusiastic supporters of the move. As the two clubs meet on semi-final business at Franklin’s Gardens on Saturday, they might take the opportunity to shine a light into the murk. There again…