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Q&A – Rob Baxter reveals how he plans to balance Premiership with ‘A’ League fixtures

Exeter Chiefs director of rugby Rob Baxter

As Premiership leaders Exeter prepare to resume their campaign against Leicester this Saturday, director of rugby Rob Baxter offers NEALE HARVEY his take on affairs with a league and Champions Cup ‘double’ still well within his sights.

How have your players emerged after lockdown?

I have to give them great credit for how they obviously worked when they were in proper lockdown away from the club. They made sure they used their time well and didn’t gorge on junk food or anything, they all turned up for stage one training in very good condition. That allowed us to push on pretty quickly with field running and weights and we hit stage two as we wanted. Apart from a lack of warm-up games, we’re where we’d want to be in a normal pre-season.

Are you frustrated not to have been back playing earlier?

Yes. It’s always difficult from a sporting perspective to talk about anything that other people see as relating to health or whatever, but when you actually look at the (Covid-19) numbers and what we’re talking about currently, we do feel it’s a little contradictory about where we are as a sport. You’ve been to Sandy Park and it’s hard to imagine that even with a measure of distancing and sensibility about how people arrive and depart, we couldn’t already have been staging games in an open air environment that would have been no more dangerous than anything people have been doing for the last month or so in other walks of life. People are shopping and socialising and yet there’s a handbrake on in sport which is a huge frustration amongst clubs who feel they’ve got the facilities to allow people to genuinely be well controlled and have the distance they require.

You sit on the board at Exeter, how annoying is it that you’ve been unable to open for business?

It’s hugely frustrating when you’ve spent a good amount of time building and developing a facility and attracting a group of sponsors and supporters that makes a matchday pretty special and the business a financial success. To flip that over where there’s zero pounds income when the club has built a hospitality and conference centre and a well-developed facility for entertainment is hugely frustrating, especially when you’re watching people get on planes and going on holiday. You can see other elements of society opening up so you do have to scratch your head.

The Premiership resumes this week and sides like Bristol and Sale are not hiding their title ambitions, so what are you expecting?

I think it will be really exciting and you’ve got to embrace it. The difficulty is you can talk about it as almost being a new season but the reality is we’re all at different starting points and that does change things. Squads and coaching staffs have changed and it’s hard to foresee how teams further down the league might look at these remaining nine games. You might look at them as an extended pre-season where you’re working on new things with an eye on 20/21, while others might be looking at it as a chance to win the whole thing with where they feel their squad is and where they stand in the league. Every club will want something different, whether it’s top four, Champions Cup qualification or squad building, so it will be a challenge game by game to plot your way through.

You’ve signed Jonny Gray and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne along with five younger players in Josh Hodge, Aaron Hinkley, Corey Baldwin, Jack Walsh and Facundo Cordero – happy with your business?

We’ve got a nice balance in the squad. We’ve had an element of success over the last five or six years and never been at the stage of a total rebuild, so for us it’s a little bit more about continuity and making sure we don’t get too old in certain positions. We need to keep challenging our front-line players so that’s where we feel we’ve done well in this round of recruitment. Jonny Gray coming into the forwards adds quality, experience and ability, and outside that Sam Hidalgo-Clyne looks like he’ll be a good fit for us as a replacement for Nic White. Josh Hodge has looked very good in training, Aaron Hinkley is a little cannonball ball-carrier and Jack Walsh looks just as good as he did when we saw him in junior rugby in Australia. Corey Baldwin has an injury niggle so we haven’t seen much of him yet and it will be interesting to see how Facundo Cordero looks when he gets here after his period of isolation, but they both look exciting and will add to what is already a quality squad. We look pretty well set for the next two or three years.

What are you hoping Jonny Gray will add to your second row?

New talisman: Jonny Gray pictured in action during a inter-squad match at Sandy Park. David Rogers/Getty Images

He’ll be very good and the best thing I can say about Jonny is just how hard he’s been prepared to work through the things we’re doing. It’s not just on the rugby field, we like to make sure all the elements of a player are aligned and our conditioning team are working very hard with him so that everything is right for what we expect of him on the field. Jonny’s bought into that wholeheartedly and he’s doing things physically in a fantastic way and really driving himself. What you’ll see is his whole game explode around the alignment of his conditioning and he’s showing up fantastically well in the semi-opposed and opposed team sessions we’ve been doing. He’s already standing out as a guy who’s going to have a huge effect on what we do.

Exeter cherish possession, so what have you made of the refereeing interpretations in Super Rugby around the breakdown and what impact do you foresee?

Everything we’re hearing from the RFU’s referees is very positive. They’ve obviously spent a lot of time assessing what’s happening in the southern hemisphere, where without a doubt they’re aware there was probably an over-refereeing of the breakdown initially. Refs there were looking for penalties and turnovers at so many breakdowns and what they’ve realised is that you need to stop and assess what’s actually happened. Has a defender genuinely got there legally? Has a defender actually made an attempt to lift the ball without putting their hands to the floor first and maintaining their own weight? Initially, it was very tempting to go too hard to help the defensive team and if you managed to get a hand on the ball you pretty much won a penalty. What you’re seeing now, of course, is that Super Rugby referees have realised they’ve been too lenient on guys not being hands to the floor before competing for the ball and now it’s becoming harder to win turnovers again.

They’ve got the balance pretty good now and I certainly get the impression from talking to referees here that they’ll be taking a very sensible approach to what they want from us. With refereeing you sometimes think about what players can’t do, whereas in reality the key to good refereeing is realising what a player can do and I think our refs have had some pretty good advice there. (European referee’s boss) Joel Jutge gave some very good advice around the breakdown when he said, ‘reward the team that deserves to be rewarded’ because if a referee is watching a breakdown and you clearly think the defence has won it, they should win the breakdown. That, for me, is the way I like to hear referees talking.

Changing tack, have you read the 76-page Edward Griffiths report around the future of the Championship and how that might affect other areas of the game?

I’ve ready it in full and I can understand why it would be attractive to some people, but if I’m 100% honest, and knowing what I do about the finances of rugby union currently, there are things being said in there that I can’t quite work out for myself. Without relatively big amounts of financial input that it is hoped the Championship will raise, none of it really works because you simply couldn’t afford to do it. Some of the figures around what salaries will be, what wage levels will be per club, how academies will be paid for and what universities will provide, I think with quite a lot of those things when you’re working in the game and know how hard it is to raise finance, it looks highly optimistic.

Secondly, talking about removing academies from Premiership clubs and thinking those clubs would naturally think that was a good move because it might save them some money, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. There are always going to be ideas around the Championship but I actually have a feeling that when they look at the document in the cold light of day, a lot of Championship clubs will question where that level of finance is going to come from. They all know how hard it’s been to raise finance in the past, so why is that suddenly going to change?

Where do you stand on Griffiths proposal to bin promotion and relegation for four years from season 2021/22?

Emotionally it doesn’t feel right to me because I know what we went through as a team and how the players had to perform and what it’s led us to now. I can’t say I’m against promotion and relegation.

Having said that, you do need clubs in the Championship who want to be promoted and that’s the biggest key to this. Having relegation from the Premiership if there aren’t teams in the Championship who want to be promoted seems silly, but if you look at Ealing you can see clearly that they do want to be promoted and are prepping themselves that way, so to say they shouldn’t have that opportunity is pretty tough.

But if you look beyond Ealing, are there genuinely clubs who are going to work over the next 12 months to three years to be able to meet the minimum criteria? If there aren’t any, that changes the picture and maybe we shouldn’t be looking beyond a Premiership of 13 or 14 clubs for a period of time. That’s when we should maybe be looking at changing the promotion and relegation system to allow other clubs to build. At this moment in time, though, I’d feel very uncomfortable shutting off an ambitious club.

Regarding the proposal to remove academies from Premiership clubs, where would Exeter stand on that?

It’s certainly not our preferred model. We feel we’ve worked hard to develop a well-established academy that serves our region well and serves us really well as a club. We already feel we’ve developed an excellent relationship with Exeter University and we really support their BUCS team, while we’ve got a good number of their players registered with our academy.

Beyond that, we’ve got a more refined system than the one being proposed in terms of our dual-registration arrangements with Championship and National League clubs, so we’re okay with where we are. Any document or idea can look good until you get down to the brass tacks of raising the money to pay for it all. If a TV company turned round and said they’d finance the Championship to the tune of £15m and that covers all the costs, the proposal is one you might put forward, but I’m not sure it would work the other way round.

Back to the here and now, you’ve got a pretty big squad so will they all get enough rugby and what’s happening with the A-League?

For the next two months, I don’t think anybody will be short of rugby. With nine league games, three of them in midweek, and with Europe and potential play-offs as well, it’ll be a case of working out the best way of being successful in as many games as you can while looking after your players to the best of your ability. When we need players to be at their absolute best is when we’re playing semi-finals and finals so it’s about finding that balance between winning enough games and points to get there and being as good as you can be in the final weeks of the season.

As for the A-League, with the likely fixture congestion across the Premiership, Europe and international game over the next 12 months, I can’t see there being one. It would be pretty tough to have an A-League because of the inability to fit those games in and whether it will be necessary, especially for clubs with good links to Championship, National league and BUCS teams. There still may be a third domestic competition (Premiership Cup) which could be up to six games, so that could become a full-on development tournament if it’s well spaced.

Club legend Gareth Steenson, 36, will retire at the end of the season, what coaching plans do you have for him?

Exeter Chiefs fly-half Gareth Steenson
All-rounder: Exeter legend Gareth Steenson has already displayed his coaching capabilities to Rob Baxter. Getty Images

A bit of everything! Everyone’s aware of the quality of kicker he is and we’ll certainly be expecting him to do that throughout the club, which would include the academy and women as well as our first team.

We’re also keen to develop him beyond being a kicking coach in terms of him working with the halfbacks and their decision-making with a view to becoming a total backs and attack coach. We’re very aware that we’ve probably held back Gareth’s coaching career a bit because we’ve wanted him to focus on playing at a very high level, but I’ve watched him in some of the kicking sessions he’s been doing with our new fly-half Jack Walsh recently and you can see he’s going to be a natural guide for younger players. There’ll be no shortage of work for Gareth at this club!

How emotional would it be for guys like Steenson and Phil Dollman to bow out with a Premiership and European Cup ‘double’?

It would be pretty emotional for everybody if we achieved that, especially this year with everything that’s been going on, but it would be a fantastic tribute to both those guys.

The most important thing for someone like Gareth, though – the thing that would make him proudest – is that I don’t think it comes down to winning two trophies, what he wants to be able to do is look back on a career and season where he’s gone flat out and succeeded to a level we deserve. Some people look back and remember trophies, but I believe it’s about the level you played at and how committed you were to each game that makes you feel the proudest. I know that’s what Gareth wants to do and if he goes flat out over the next two months, it’ll give us a great opportunity to do well.

We shouldn’t forget fellow No.10 Joe Simmonds. How good has he been and how well are you covered if he gets an England call?

Joe’s doing very well and his kicking percentage is remarkable. He’s improving as a decision-maker and as a communicator and those things are important as well. He’s still young, so undoubtedly there’s international potential there if we can keep providing him with the platform.

If players get called up by England you’re always thinking about back-up and we’ve been seeing Harvey Skinner and Jack Walsh going full-on in training every day. Guys like Joe, Henry Slade and Steeno were all in that position as young guys once so the way we look at it is that international opportunities provide chances for others – then it’s up to us as coaches to back those guys as well.

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