Rob Baxter’s building for good times at Exeter
Lifting the Anglo-Welsh Cup was only the start – the Chiefs coach is planning for more glory days in the club’s £24m new home, as he tells Chris Hewett
There are only two reasons why club bosses would start levelling their stadium less than a week after celebrating a first major title in 143 years – or, if you prefer, since the age of Gladstone.
They either believe they have maxed out on their potential and may as well quit while they’re ahead, or they know this is the start of something rather than the end of it and want to build themselves a home worthy of their ambition. Exeter fall squarely into the latter category.
Sandy Park may be a rubble pit right now, but everything else is in one beautifully proportioned piece.
Not that Rob Baxter, who runs the show with an ever-increasing air of authority is reading too much into last Sunday’s excellent Anglo-Welsh Cup final victory over a strong Northampton side, which sent the hometown supporters into collective rapture and led civic leaders to suggest that an open-top bus tour might be a good idea. Baxter is neither a pessimist nor a sourpuss and he enjoys a rugby party as much as the next man, but he has a realistic streak a mile wide – he is, after all, a working farmer – and it prevents him losing his sense of proportion.
“You can believe it or not, but the biggest thing for me last weekend was not winning the trophy, despite the fact that we made some history for ourselves, but winning the game – or rather, proving to ourselves that we could win such a game,” he said after overseeing a breathless training session while the heavy machinery was wreaking its havoc on the other side of the West Stand as part of a £24m redevelopment project. “And you know what? There’s something bigger coming this weekend because we’re playing Leicester up there.
“This is the first test of everything we learnt about ourselves in the cup final. If we don’t perform, all the wonderful messages that greeted our victory over Northampton will turn into something else.
“It was a fantastic day for us, playing in that final, and yes, it meant a lot. There are a lot of people who have a long association with the club who can’t remember when they weren’t yearning to win something, me included.
“But sport is fickle, isn’t? As I’ve just said to the forwards during scrummaging practice, all those who watched us on television last week and shared in our success will be watching us again tomorrow. We have to back it up, because if we don’t…”
Tomorrow’s game at Welford Road is indeed significant. If the West Countrymen are to find a way into next season’s elite European competition, whatever it ends up being called, they must start making their move PDQ. Only the top six Premiership sides will make the cut automatically, with the seventh in play-off territory against one of the leading teams in France. Exeter are currently eighth.
“I’ll be disappointed if we don’t put some heat on the teams above us over the weeks remaining to us,” Baxter said. “We did it last year, finding some form at this point in the campaign, and I have to say that coming up on the rails and chasing people down is a fun way of making your presence felt. I get the feeling that we’re just beginning to step it up and if we do get there, I think we’ll deserve it.
“I’ve asked some difficult questions of the players recently – hit them hard in emphasising the need for individual responsibility. They’ve responded well. If they hadn’t done so, we wouldn’t have won that trophy.”
Exeter struggled to find the way through a particularly testing maze of fixtures either side of Christmas. They played Bath, whom they had not beaten since the late 1970s, home and away; they had to mix it with sides as strong, in their different fashions, as Saracens and Harlequins; they found themselves up against Toulon, the highest rollers in Europe when it comes to the folding stuff, in the Heineken Cup – not once, but twice in the space of a week. There were precious few victories in that period and Baxter knew the season had reached its tipping point.
“It was then that I went away and decided a change of tack was needed: that it might be an idea to remove the comfort blanket that had been thrown around the players and tell them it was time they understood the difference between a tight win and a tight loss,” he recalled.
“For a long time we’d been encouraging them to express themselves on the field, to play it as they saw it and not be frightened to make a mistake. I still held the view that this was the way forward for us and I was still happy to take an individual error on the chin. What I wasn’t happy about was the second error and the third error – the compound errors that were hurting us, that were costing us games.
“So we spoke about the need for rugby maturity, about the need to stop and talk things through during a match rather than just keep doing what we were doing, about the fact that as we did actually know how to defend we didn’t have to approach every game thinking that we must have all the ball all of the time. And people took it on board.
“When we played London Irish down here in the Premiership it wasn’t a pretty victory for us, but we didn’t concede a single point. We didn’t play particularly beautiful rugby against Bath in the LV semi-final, either, but we won. And against Northampton last week, our error-on-error count was lower than theirs. Which was saying something, given their quality.”
As ever, Baxter’s thoughts were made flesh by the outstanding Wallaby lock Dean Mumm, whose captaincy of the side has been nothing short of inspired. But the really impressive thing about Exeter’s revival has been the contribution of a group of academy graduates who have not played a full season’s worth of senior rugby between them: the new England wing Jack Nowell, the highly rated midfielder Henry Slade and the hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie, a stone-cold international forward of the future if ever there was one. With several other youngsters in the selection mix – the frank and forthright centre Sam Hill, for one – Baxter finds himself in a time of plenty.
Yet once again, he plays the perspective card. “We’re delighted with the quality of player coming to us from our academy bases,” said the coach, referring to Ivybridge College, situated on the southern edge of Dartmoor, Truro College in Cornwall and, latterly, Bicton College in Exeter itself.
“When I was playing, it used to frustrate the hell out of me to see good local talent heading elsewhere. It was understandable – we weren’t in the Premiership and we couldn’t offer the best players what they wanted – but that didn’t make it easier for those of us at the club. It’s very different now, I’m happy to say. Around a third of our senior squad come from Devon and Cornwall and the percentage will grow, I’m sure.
“But it’s not only about developing youngsters, or even about developing good English talent. When I look at what Dean Mumm has brought to the club and when I see the effect Jason Shoemark [a New Zealander] or Sireli Naqelevuki [a Fijian] have on the place, I’m reminded of the importance of adding people from other countries and other rugby cultures.
“It’s the mix that counts. It shows the academy players that there are different ways of approaching the game and, just as importantly, it proves that if individuals as talented as Dean are enjoying life here, the grass elsewhere is not necessarily greener.”
Last Saturday in Rome, where England went in search of the Six Nations title and narrowly missed out, Nowell started the game on the right wing and the flanker Tom Johnson joined him off the bench in the closing minutes. Never before had Exeter supplied two players to a red-rose squad for a full international. Twenty-four hours later, the club achieved another first. There have been worse weekends down Sandy Park way, and when the wrecking balls finally stop swinging there will be even better ones to come.
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