Baxter: “Being competitive is all I ask”

Chiefs prepared for battle

The Exeter Chiefs were regarded as one of the Aviva Premiership surprise packages last season, although that it is probably doing them a huge disservice. Rob Baxter, the Director of Rugby at the Chiefs, doesn’t like accolades but prides himself on the way that Exeter were “such a competitive side last season.”

When evaluating last season, Baxter doesn’t get carried away by the euphoria of Heineken Cup qualification and has a simple view. “The reason we finished 5th is down to being competitive every week, and there were only a couple of weeks where we didn’t come away with at least a losing bonus point. As a coach it’s easy, as you’re coaching a team that’s there or thereabouts. You either win or you’re close to a win. That’s the aim for this coming season, to be competitive in every game.”

The very fact that two of their squad are in The Rugby Championship playing for Argentina (Camacho and Meires) and that Tom Johnson played in all three of England’s Summer Internationals against South Africa, proves that the Chiefs players are finally getting the recognition that their previous seasons’ form deserves. “It’s great for us to see our players getting the International recognition, but we need to use it as a motivator. If you look at the clubs who have the most international players, they are always at the top domestically. The reason for that is, they perform together as a team and that helps the individuals as players.”

“We need to use them as an example for the rest of our guys in the squad, if you want to break into international sides you need to start performing well here first. You have to be part of the unit that pushes the team forward on a week-by-week basis and if you do that, then the international recognition will happen.”

However, the reason for Exeter’s performance should not just be characterised by one ingredient: it’s a collection of factors that combine to give them the success that they richly deserve. Every one of the Chiefs knows their place, from the tea lady and kit-man to the players and coaches and Baxter is quick to sum up his own role in the side. “The job of us as coaches is to put a plan together that will allow the individuals in the team to perform on a week-by-week basis and if we do that then we will be a good competitive side every week.”

Nevertheless, as Wasps and Newcastle can testify, “you can’t afford to get it wrong, the Premiership is an unforgiving place and you can easily get hurt. You can’t have the cruise season like you used to, you can’t afford to get complacent, you have to be flat out every week and my job is to make sure we are.”

“We as a team are still looking to develop and evolve. We are still quite a relatively young Premiership side and so most important for us is to stay strong as a group. If we can stay strong collectively, hopefully that will help the individuals already within it and they will start to develop and mature into better more established players. That’s the model that’s got us were we are today and it suits us down to the ground.”

Pre-season for Exeter started in June, demonstrating how reluctant they are to rest on their laurels. They did give the team a 10-day break in the middle of their preparations though, to give them a “pre-season holiday before they got back into preseason part 2.”

Exeter’s first match of the campaign is against Sale at Sandy Park, which Baxter descrbed as “a tough opener, as Sale have made some interesting signings and are a team looking to go somewhere, who – a bit like ourselves – had a good end to last season and qualified for the Heineken Cup. It will be a challenge for us, but that’s why it’s exciting. It’s a challenge every week – you can never look at any side and think that it’s an easy game.”

“If you look at our first five games (Sale, Saints, London Welsh, Saracens and Leicester) you think ‘oh my god, what have we got ourselves into, this will be tough’, but that’s how it is, you’ve just got to grin and bear it.”

In regards to their Heineken Cup campaign, Baxter says that he doesn’t even have to mention that to his players. “The nice thing about the group we have got is, the actual motivation factor will take care of itself. I’m not really talking to the guys about that, I don’t reckon I’ll need to. We’re just talking about starting the season off on the right note.”

“I think that once we get through the first six matches and all the guys come into work on the Monday morning before the Leinster game, they will be buzzing and everything will fall into place. For me it’s about dealing with the Premiership first and making sure we are as competitive as we can be every week and making sure we try and get points out of every game.”