Exeter Chiefs’ Rob Baxter forgetting about the Heineken Cup – for now
Exeter Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter is refusing to get carried away about the prospect of Heineken Cup rugby this season
Exeter Chiefs have surprised many by their effortless transition from the Championship to the Aviva Premiership since promotion in 2010, and with Heineken Cup rugby on the horizon, Rob Baxter does not intend to change a winning philosophy this season.
The magic formula the 41-year-old has concocted at Sandy Park involves starting the season in peak fitness with a ‘take each game as it comes’ attitude, planning only in the short-term, and at the end of the campaign, see what has been achieved.
The fruits of this tactic are evident. Exeter competed in the Amlin Challenge Cup last season, reaching the quarter-finals before being edged out by Stade Français at at Stade Charlety in April, while also maintaining a strong run domestically, finishing in fifth place.
As if facing one of rugby’s illustrious clubs in the last-eight of Europe’s second tier competition was not enough, Exeter will take on defending Heineken Cup champions Leinster in a demanding group which also houses Clermont Auvergne and Scarlets.
But Baxter, who is thoroughly level-headed about the club’s success, stressed the importance of starting the Premiership season in a rich vein of form to build up momentum and forget about the prospect of competing in the Heineken Cup – for now at least.
“It’s going to be a great challenge but the bread and butter for us as a club is the Premiership,” he says. “We’re aiming to be flat out through these opening six fixtures because it’s the first block of Premiership games and you can set yourself up for the season if they go well.
“While we’ve been in the Premiership, we haven’t looked at the season as being a long-term thing where we’ve wanted to peak at a certain point, primarily because we were a new Premiership side.
“The problem you get if you don’t start well is that points aren’t on the board and pressure starts to build on you as a team and on individual players because the realities of getting relegated are so big – especially for a club trying to establish itself in the Premiership.”
Following a promising pre-season campaign which saw Exeter rack up victories over the Cornish Pirates and the Glasgow warriors, Baxter’s side began the new season with an emphatic 43-6 victory over Sale Sharks.
It was their third successive victory on the Premiership’s opening day since returning to the top flight in 2010, and it is testament to Baxter’s training regimes during the summer months that his players were once again in peak condition to make an electric start.
However, Baxter is aware hiccups can occur along the way, and back-to-back defeats by Northampton Saints and newly-promoted London Welsh are setbacks for Exeter – highlighting the unpredictability for Premiership rugby.
For this reason, the head coach is reluctant to raise the expectations of the club’s supporters unnecessarily, preferring to stay grounded about their recent success and realistic about their potential moving forward.
“We are very much ‘take things as they come’ at Exeter. The cumulative effect at the end of the season is that you will get what you deserve. We look at it very much like that,” added Baxter.
“So it’s very easy to sit here and go, ‘we want to be at least as good as we were last year’, or, ‘we want to do better’, but the reality is saying that doesn’t really mean anything. It might sound nice to your supporters that you’re being ambitious and aiming for a higher place.
“But in truth, I think most people who have any knowledge of sport, know my position as head coach and our players that we want to be as successful as we can – that goes without saying.
“If I was a supporter of Exeter, I’d like to think what that relates to is they know we’re going to go after every game as hard as we can, that’s going to be worth coming and watching.
“They’re not going to watch Exeter put out a weak side or try and rotate players. It works well for us, and it’s something which works for us and I don’t see any reason to change.”
Exeter’s latest defeat will invariably raise further questions about their ability to cope with the demands of domestic and European rugby, especially the intensively competitive Heineken Cup where few teams can afford to rest players as he did in the Amlin Cup last season.
Most of Baxter’s squad have not experienced Heineken Cup rugby before and their detractors are already questioning the club’s ability to be competitive this season on two challenging fronts.
But the Exeter head coach is adamant his side, who have always been able to answer any questions asked of them during their first two seasons in the Premiership, will only improve from facing Europe’s elite clubs – which in Baxter’s eyes is a huge positive even if results prove unfavourable.
“First and foremost, you know have to perform flat out in it. But the groups are so tough, you’re not dead and buried if you lose a game. If you’re good at home and you pick up some bonus points, some of those pools can be very, very interesting,” he said.
“We’ve got a group of players who enjoy being in the Premiership, they were fantastic in the Amlin, and for an awful lot of them, this will be their first opportunity in the Heineken Cup.
“Whatever happens they’ll be better individual players for it, and we’ll be a better team. As far as I’m concerned, qualifying for the Heineken Cup is pluses all round.
“I’ve heard people say we’ll struggle with having to deal with the Premiership and Heineken Cup – but why?
“What’s negative about your players playing against some of the best players in the world in one of the best rugby competitions in the world? How does that make you a worse team?
“Obviously injuries and fatigue can happen, but are you a better team and a better player for playing in a Heineken Cup game? Of course you are.”
And who would dare disagree with Baxter? After all, Exeter surprised everyone by their impressive debut campaign in the English top flight with an eighth-place finish, while they improved again last season and qualified for the Heineken Cup for the first time. It would be no surprise to see Baxter’s men shocking a few of Europe’s top sides.
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