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Exclusive: Exeter head Rob Baxter won’t be tempted by England job if World Cup ends in failure

Rob Baxter

Tony Rowe, chief executive and chairman of the Exeter Chiefs, offers NEALE HARVEY some forthright opinions on Exeter, the Premiership and how he sees the global game evolving.

What did you make of Exeter’s Premiership final loss to Saracens?

I don’t get depressed but I was a bit upset. You can’t win games in the first quarter but you can certainly lose them in the final quarter and we’re not quite wise enough to work that out. Sarries are a little bit wiser in big competitions and they’ve learned how to win games late on and not be fazed. That’s the bit we haven’t quite mastered yet.

How do you and director of rugby Rob Baxter react after setbacks like that?

It’s very rare that Rob and I will actually discuss it. We might make a comment to each other but we both understand where we are, where the club is and where the players are in the development of the club. When I embarked on getting into the Premiership over 20 years ago and then appointed Rob as head coach in 2009, we shared our personal ambitions. They’ve never changed and we haven’t fulfilled them yet, but I think we’re getting close to being able to do that. There’s no hurry, which might sound strange, but we’re under no pressure. We run a good, strong business so we just need to keep adding to our infrastructure, keep increasing our capacity and performance on and off the pitch and it’s all coming to fruition. Commercially we’re strong and we’re just about to spend £30m on a hotel we will own and we’ve now got an academy which performs at the top end; we’ve never had so many current internationals from our own development pathway. We’ve come a bit short in Europe but we aim to be the top club in the Premiership and the rest will come from that.

Rob’s been in charge for over ten years. Do you see him establishing a dynasty at Exeter in the manner Sir Alex Ferguson once did at Manchester United?

Yes. There’s no reason why he can’t. I believe rugby as we know it will change in the next five to ten years and we’ll hopefully attract more money. CVC’s arrival and the money from that is just the start of more commercialisation of our sport and we’re on the cusp of something big. I haven’t asked Rob this, but I wouldn’t mind betting he will say the same and I’d love to think he’ll be around to see the job through. He’s had ten years in charge and been at Exeter since I arrived in 1993, so that’s 26 years of his life with this team and he’s the leader. I don’t think he’ll jump ship halfway through.

So, what if Eddie Jones bombs at the World Cup and England come calling?

You said ‘if’ he bombs, but I’ve no doubt he will. I don’t think we are strong enough. I can’t see us getting to the final so Eddie Jones may go, but I’m fairly confident that Rob, even if he had the conversation, wouldn’t be tempted away.

You’re not a fan of Eddie Jones then?

No. He’s a strange guy who’s made some strange comments about our game and the way we play.

Rob Baxter has no attraction to Eddie Jones' job
. Getty Images

What do you make of Jones’ recent comments about England being held back because of the “battleground between the clubs and the RFU”?

Get a life, man! The thing is we are an oddity in that the clubs own the players, but people have got to understand that my playing budget runs to nearly £10m a year, plus coaches, plus backroom and medical staff. That’s a massive investment and if I wanted to stand up and squawk that I don’t want my players playing representative rugby anymore, I have a right to do that. I’m not going to name him but I saw one of my internationals  only four times last season. These players cost a lot of money and although it’s a sport, it’s also a business for the Premiership clubs. We have to get our businesses profitable and if we’re paying a lot of money for what we consider to be guys at the top of the sport, we need to be able to put them on show in our grounds. It’s no good if England just keep nicking our best players. We get a certain amount of money back but it’s all very conditional and every time we get a slight increase, all we have is people squawking that the RFU are paying us too much money.

Surely part of the problem is there are too many overlaps between club and international rugby, the World Cup and Six Nations periods being prime examples?

Far too many overlaps. Premiership Rugby have made numerous representations to World Rugby about restructuring the season to try and get things tidied up, but it’s a real struggle. We don’t want to stop lads representing their countries because that’s what a lot of them want to do, but it should be fairly easy for people to work together so we get the best of both worlds. I just think it’s quite strange that we’re forever working against each other.

On to club issues, what do you make of rivals Leicester being put up for sale?

My first reaction when I saw my managing director was that it must have been because their balance sheet looked good. Sure enough, that was the case. Business is business, we’re all in business and we would all like investment in our businesses. The Leicester board obviously feel that now is the right time to encourage somebody to invest in the club.

As a businessman, can you see the logic?

Very much so. I know that Leicester are an ambitious club, not just on the pitch but commercially as well, just like us at Exeter. These clubs cost lots of money to run and we’re always trying to work out how we can develop them commercially. What Leicester have done doesn’t surprise me at all and I can only assume others within the Premiership are watching to see what happens.

Is Leicester’s proposed sale a direct result of CVC’s involvement?

It is. I spoke to a couple of chairmen when we were first approached by CVC and we’d never actually thought of the Premiership as having a value to it. But, collectively, someone has come along and decided it’s worth between £800m and £1bn, which is great news for the clubs because we’re in business and businesses need money. Some clubs have to work with the support of financiers and banks and all they’re interested in is what your balance sheet is like. What’s happened with CVC has made all our balance sheets look much healthier.

Exeter’s still a members’ club, but could you ever envisage a Leicester style sale offer?

Not at the moment. Where we are, we’re comfortable, but that’s not to say that we wouldn’t look to do something in future. Exeter has been a PLC for a number of years but we’ve never traded our shares and for now nothing changes. We have an advantage over other clubs in that our current business model is profitable.

Could we see an influx of foreign ownership in English rugby, as in football?

I don’t see why not. Money will follow money and it’s interesting that Premiership rugby matches are now seen live every weekend in China, across virtually all of Asia and in North America. It’s become more of a global sports entertainment business with everything that follows.

How do you see CVC’s involvement impacting the game now?

All I can say is they’ve done a deal with the Premiership – an investment in excess of £200m – and they’ll want a return on that. I’d be surprised if we don’t see some commercial return in the not too distant future because to them it’s all about increasing the value of their shares. We’ve had the same (£13.5) windfall the other clubs have had but as far as anything else from the deal goes, we’ve not done anything yet. That’s something for the future when CVC move things along.

TV camera - Premiership rugby
TV money: Could a rugby-specialist television broadcaster be on the horizon for rugby union? Getty Images

How might CVC’s involvement change things TV-wise? Do you think existing rugby broadcasters such as BT, Sky, BBC and ITV will still hold sway?

The reality is there are so many TV companies out there now so it wouldn’t surprise me to see a dedicated rugby channel. That’s where some of the thoughts are, that somebody major may just come along and buy up all the rights for Rugby Union and Rugby League so that anywhere in the world you want to watch it, you just subscribe to one provider.

Six Nations, Premiership, Super Rugby, Tests, the lot?

Why not? The CVC deal came about because they pointed out that English football’s (tier two) Championship actually attracts more TV rights money than the whole of Northern Hemisphere rugby put together. You hear that and think, ‘Hang on a minute, how can that be?’. It’s true, though, so we’re way, way behind football on the amount of money our sport generates. Central funding for the entire Premiership is less than the cost of a good Premier League goalkeeper in football, which shows how far we’ve got to go. I don’t think we’ll ever get to the levels of football but there will certainly be a lot more money coming into rugby than there is now.

What’s the current state of play regarding ground development plans at Exeter?

Ten years ago, before we got into the Premiership, we were pleased with crowds of 4,500, but last season we averaged over 12,000 so we’re adding capacity to Sandy Park that will take us from 12,800 to 13,700 for this season coming and then, from 2020/21, we’re going up to 15,000. More and more people are coming and we’ve had the embarrassment of people complaining that they can’t get a ticket. I don’t want an empty stadium but I don’t want to put people off watching us either. We’ll be developing the hotel at the same time to enhance our off-field business, with the improvements in conferencing and banqueting facilities that will bring.

Given clubs are generally losing money, do you see the Premiership salary cap rising again soon?

I don’t see it going anywhere in a hurry, although there are always a few clubs who would like to push their spending up. On the subject of those losses, just because some clubs are managed to run at a loss, it doesn’t mean the business is bad. It could be because the owners prefer to do it that way, probably as part of a wider group of companies. People should actually applaud the fact that year after year they put money into the sport. If we can get more money from commercial rights, which I think CVC are likely to do, then the chairmen could be tempted to discuss putting the salary cap up, but at the moment it’s frozen. That’s sensible because with all the dispensations and two marquee players, you can still spend up to £9m.

With Ealing, Cornish Pirates and Coventry showing some ambition in the Championship, what’s your position on the ring-fencing debate?

We will always support promotion and relegation and hope it’s retained in some form or another. Because of the CVC money, though, the Premiership has almost ring-fenced itself financially and anybody wishing to enter it now has got to find a lot of money. Okay, I do understand that there are a couple of Championship clubs with the financial wherewithal to do it but rather than spending the money on players, they need to spend money on infrastructure in the same way we have. It wasn’t by accident that we got into the Premiership, it took years of planning to make sure we had everything right.

There’s been talk of a 13-team Premiership and play-off, with a potential breakaway if the clubs don’t get their way. Any view?

No decision has been made about a 13-team Premiership and conversations are still going on there. All I can say is that I think the whole game is going to change in the next four or five years and all we will do at Exeter is strive to be as competitive as we can be, not only in the Premiership but in Europe so that we place ourselves in a position where we would be considered as one of the premier European sides involved in any competition out there.

Can you envisage a European league ever happening?

Yes. I foresee a European Champions League and it could be fantastic. You could have two groups of eight clubs, with play-offs and have the best teams in Europe competing. What a TV spectacle that would be. If you look at Premiership squads now, most are running at 45 players and if you add in your academy, you could have 65-70 players. Say, for instance, a European Champions League came along and we were invited into that, we could put our remaining guys into the Premiership. There are loads of possibilities and what you’ve got to do over the next few years is keep an open mind.

Could you ever see French clubs leaving their league, which is over 125 years old?

We’re in a professional sport and it’s all about money. No matter what the sport is and whatever way you’ve traditionally run things, it all comes back to money and who’s putting it up. Within the French Top 14, if you’ve got four or five of the best clubs that decide they want to go off and do something else, then the whole thing becomes different. The possibilities are endless.

Finally, Exeter Chiefs are creating a women’s team. Where are you with that?

We are currently recruiting a manager/coach who will begin recruiting players and get the project together. We’ve held discussions with Exeter College and Exeter University who will fully support us and we’re confident of producing a team good enough to get into the Tyrrells 15s. We’re waiting to hear from the RFU about the franchise process for 2020/21 but we’re very excited about it. We had a really good experience when England Women played at Sandy Park during the Six Nations and we’re hoping to host another women’s international next season. 

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