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FEATURE: Rob Baxter on Exeter’s prospects in the Premiership and Europe and why ring-fencing would be ‘morally wrong’

Exeter director of rugby Rob Baxter tells NEALE HARVEY why his club is in great shape to target a Premiership and Champions Cup ‘double’this season.

Did losing May’s Premiership final to Saracens take much of the gloss off last season’s successes?

That’s how it feels but as much as we mustn’t under-react, because that can be fatal, it’s important not to over-react either on the basis of one game. A lot of the systems and the way we played in terms of our energy drove us to the top of the Premiership and got us through a tough semi-final in good style.

The thing that was disappointing, as well as Saracens played, is there was a lot more for us in that final if we’d been prepared to play a bit more rugby. The hard bits when you play Saracens are the physical confrontations and we did well in that area, but we were almost too confrontational and that stopped us seeing times when we could have challenged them more. We didn’t do ourselves justice but we’ll add things to our game without ripping everything up.

Sky Sports pundit Stuart Barnes heavily criticised Exeter’s possession-based game, accusing you of being ‘boring’ and ‘ruining rugby’. How do you react to that?

If the main part of your argument is that keeping the ball is a negative tactic, then you’ve got to be pretty narrow-minded from a rugby perspective because you’re watching a team that’s prepared to make more passes than anyone else. He says keeping the ball for keeping the ball’s sake is boring but I don’t know another coach in world rugby who’d think being able to keep the ball at the breakdown and make passes is negative for the game.

I take what Barnes says as a huge compliment actually because I’ve been involved with Exeter since I was 16 and we’ve never had a comment from anybody saying consistently getting into finals or the top four is boring. I wish that had happened when I was playing! Weren’t Leicester called ‘boring, boring Leicester’ when they won all those Premierships? If people think we’ve got a game-plan that will keep us up there, long may it continue.

Recruitment-wise, any concerns that you’ve only added winger Alex Cuthbert to your squad when the perceived wisdom is that clubs should freshen things up?

It depends how you look at it because if you say there have been 12 or 13 academy signings and look at who’s left us, like Tom Waldrom, Kai Horstmann, Julian Salvi and Will Chudley, you could say that we’ve had a 15 per cent turnover. They just haven’t necessarily come from outside the club.

A lot of people are saying Exeter have made only one signing but you’ve got to have forward-thinking plans. If a senior player leaves and another senior player comes in from somewhere else, you can get yourself into a cycle that’s not necessarily going to move you forward. We may suffer in the short-term from reducing our age profile when it comes to things like the Premiership Cup, but if our academy players play a lot of important, good rugby, that will be more beneficial to us.

Is your development programme now pretty much perfect, with the relationships with Cornish Pirates, Plymouth, Exeter University and Taunton all bearing rich fruit?

It’s getting better but whether it’s perfect, I’m not sure. I think the A-League is in a bit of limbo. It’s in the middle ground at the moment and I don’t think that’s great or suits many clubs. There are 10-12 games, which is too many to enable us to have really effective use of our loan clubs because you’re making it difficult for loan players to get established with Championship or National League sides.

When we had only six A-League games that worked better. The other opinion is that we should have a full 22-game A-League programme but then you don’t have any loan players.

I think fewer A-League games is the way to go because the current arrangement just ‘half suits’ everyone.

Braves: Fly-half Sam Morley in action in the A-League final against Northampton Wanderers (photo: David Rogers/Getty Images)

Your job title changed from head coach to director of rugby last year. What impact has that had on your role over the last 12 months?

Day to day, not very much. But I’m doing a little less coaching now and with Julian Salvi coming in as defence coach, he’s doing the sessions I would have done. I talk to Jules about our ideas but it’s important that I step back and let him genuinely lead that now. I’ve done that with the other coaches and that’s how it needs to be because people thrive on responsibility.

What it means is I can now spend a bit more time on the overall rugby matters that get put on a back-burner when you’re in the week-to-week process of preparing for the next game – things like recruitment, which is now more than half your battle. We’ve never made snap decisions on players anyway but that’s becoming more important and I can get down to our academy centres more now because they’re also an increasingly vital part of our structure moving forward.

Presumably, an increasing part of your DoR role is salary cap pressure and demands for higher wages from players?

Certainly. For a long time the salary cap was never a problem for us, it was just a bit of a dream. It’s only recently that we’ve been able to fully utilise the salary cap levels and these things take a bit more management.

If you have success, keeping that group of players together becomes harder, not easier. Playing in finals, doing well and picking up international recognition means salary levels change and that’s where we are.

We’ve had quite a large group playing good rugby over the last three years and that puts a bit more pressure on us squad-wise, hence one of the reasons for us looking to promote a number of our best young lads straight into the senior academy.

Your crown jewels, guys like Henry Slade, Jack Nowell, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Sam Hill and Dave Ewers, have been together a while now. Could that band be in danger of splitting up?

That’s right. I’ve seen other clubs making mistakes by thinking that whatever happens they can’t lose a certain group of players, but, actually, you can get yourself in a pickle over an extended period because you can’t invest everything in too few players. It just doesn’t work and you end up scratching around to put out a side and that’s what hurts you. There’ll be tough decisions for me and players to make if we get to those scenarios, but these are worries for the future.

Crown jewel: Henry Slade (photo: Harry Trump/Getty Images)

You joined Exeter’s board of directors last December. What was the thinking there?

Although we’re very good at talking about Sandy Park and Exeter Chiefs being one big business and one thing backs the other, which we do well because success on and off the field has happened together at the right pace, our chairman Tony Rowe is also aware that the rugby business is getting bigger than it was and you need that representation on the board.

For me to know what’s going on in the everyday business of the club is very important and I’m now part of the decision-making process when it comes to our long-term strategy.

You mentioned Julian Salvi becoming defence coach earlier. How do you reckon he’ll go in his first senior job straight out of playing?

He’s a young guy who’s had experience coaching at Plymouth Albion and other local clubs and he’ll bring that youthful enthusiasm and a different voice to our coaching team, which is good for all of us. I’ve told him to be himself and do it his way, and the biggest judge of how our defence goes will be how much of a good job the players want to do for him. I’d like to think they’ll take the view, ‘We’ve got a new defence coach, let’s work hard to get things right’.

The rest of your main coaches, Ali Hepher, Ricky Pellow and Rob Hunter, all have burgeoning reputations. Do you fear them being poached?

I don’t fear it. That’s not because I don’t think they’ll have offers because they will, but I don’t fear it because a) we offer a good situation for them with lots of responsibility, and b) they have an opportunity of being part of a team that’s eyeing a lot of success. What I would be afraid of is having a staff that nobody wanted.

It’s one of those scenarios where I’m actually pleased when Ali’s name comes up, whether it’s an international coaching position or another Premiership job, because it tells me he’s doing a great job. It’s the same with all our coaches.

You had six players on England’s tour to South Africa. Are you starting to get the recognition you deserve?

We’re getting there. What you saw in June was when some of the other senior guys weren’t involved ours were next on the list, which is nice. It’s part of an ongoing process but we don’t look at England representation as the be-all and end-all, it’s more a by-product of us being successful as a team. We talk about international recognition being part of the Exeter package.

Super six: Exeter Chiefs represented on England’s tour of South Africa in June (photo: Getty Images)

Have you had to pick up Jonny Hill after he was taken on tour and ignored?

Not really. He’s actually come back determined to add some elements to his game that he thinks will push him to that level of being an international player. He hasn’t come back with an attitude where we’ll need to rebuild his confidence. He’s still a young man with a lot to learn but he’s going about things in exactly the right manner.

How is your relationship with England boss Eddie Jones now after there was a little bit of tension over training ground injuries?

It’s pretty open and honest. Eddie’s come to the club a couple of times and I’ve given him feedback on our conditioning programmes, which he’s been open to listen to. People think there must be confrontation all the time but there’s not.

Ultimately, we both want our players to play at the best level they can and the only thing that creates a little bit of tension is if something England do is detrimental to our players. A lot of it isn’t and you want your players training with other good players and playing against world-class teams because I’m a great believer that players improve in those environments.

The only thing that causes conflict is if you feel a player is being pushed beyond what they’re physically capable of. I’ve spoken to Eddie about it because if we’re working a player close to his limit anyway, you don’t want that envelope getting pushed too far.

We’re still awaiting details of the new season structure, but are you confident this will be resolved satisfactorily for clubs and players?

Yes. The season will lengthen by a couple of weeks but players aren’t going to play any more games. The structure will be very much what you’re used to, with the Six Nations rolling around and Europe in similar places, although there will be a couple of rest periods and fewer clashes with internationals.

Further west, what do you make of Cornish Pirates breaking ground on their new stadium in Truro and could they be a threat to Chiefs?

I’m a believer in competition being a good thing and any improvement in the infrastructure in Cornwall is a benefit to us given our relationships with the Pirates and Truro College. It’ll be hard for them, but if in future Pirates can put together a team good enough to get into the Premiership, then fair play to them, just as it was for us in 2010. It would mean some changes to our academy set-up but that’s something we’d have to deal with.

You’re not a fan of ring-fencing?

I can see the arguments from a financial perspective but morally it would be impossible for me to say we should have ring-fencing. It’d just be wrong.

European ambitions: Exeter have been drawn alongside Castres, Gloucester and Munster in for this season’s Champions Cup in Pool 3 (photo: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

Back to Chiefs, how much of a driver is doing well in this season’s Champions Cup?

If you’ve won the Premiership and been to three successive finals but never got past the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup, then we must aim to get past that stage. Last year we genuinely went for it and fell short in what was the most difficult Pool, but within that there were some pretty dubious yellow and red card decisions that went against us and were subsequently proved to be wrong, twice against Leinster and again at Glasgow when we still had a chance to progress. Not many teams got as close to Leinster as we so we’ve got to take confidence from that.

How do you expect fly-half Gareth Steenson to respond to losing his place to Joe Simmonds last season?

Steeno’s always had other No.10s challenging him, whether it’s been Ryan Davis, Ignacio Mieres, Henry Slade or now Joe, and he’s always risen to the challenge, worked extremely hard and come back to dominate the shirt. Joe had the shirt over the last third of last season but that doesn’t mean it will carry on and we’ll pick the player we think deserves to play. If neither plays that well, we can play Henry (Slade) at No.10.

There’s been some talk around Exeter developing a fully home-grown squad. Can you ever see that happening?

Tony Rowe is pretty keen and there are a lot of merits to it, but a) there’s never an uninterrupted production line of young players, and b) I’m a big believer in players having different experiences and I’m not sure if the only experience our guys have is of other Exeter players, whether that will make us the best team we can be. Guys who’ve come in from other rugby environments, like Jason Shoemark, Dean Mumm in the past and now Nic White and Dave Dennis, have added a tremendous amount culturally to our club, and Greg Holmes is doing amazing work with our young props. That’s invaluable and, personally, I think it’s the right blend for us.

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