“Definitely,” Rob Baxter says with a steely edge when asked if he feels as driven as ever despite the euphoria of coaching Exeter Chiefs to the European Champions Cup and Premiership double last month after his life-long association with the club. Baxter captained Exeter for years in the lower divisions before becoming their caretaker coach in 2006. He was appointed head coach in 2009 and a year later the club were promoted to the Premiership.
This cemented his family’s extraordinary bond with Exeter for his father, John, had also captained and been chairman of the club while his younger brother, Richie, played for Baxter until his retirement in 2013. Exeter’s subsequent climb to the peak of European rugby makes it one of the most uplifting stories in British sport.
The question of renewed ambition has been partly answered by a glance at the time. Baxter is so busy he suggested we do this interview at 7.15 this morning and, soon after we begin our 50-minute conversation, he talks as animatedly about the challenge posed by Harlequins on Friday night as he does when analysing Exeter’s remarkable achievement.
“I haven’t stopped thinking about Harlequins,” he says of the opening game of a new season at the Stoop, “because they beat us at their place [in February Quins won 34-30 after an injury-time penalty try]. I’m frustrated and disappointed with that performance even now. I’ve told the players that should be a driver to enjoy training harder than ever. Not many players will get a game in the Premiership this weekend. But they will. So we should cherish that and make the most of every minute because it really is precious.
“On the Monday [after beating Wasps to secure the double following the previous weekend’s defeat of Racing 92 in the European final] someone said: ‘You’ve been at the club all this time and you can’t win anything bigger now. What does it feel like?’ I said: ‘It does feel like a little weight has lifted.’ You kind of go: ‘Well, we’ve achieved the best we can achieve.’”
Baxter pauses before leaning forward intently. “But within a couple of days you’re looking around going: ‘Now we’ve won it, we’ve got to show we’re a good team because you don’t want this to be a one-off. If we slip back it will take the polish off this fantastic season. We’ve got to find new drivers and new things to fight for.’”
Exe Men, a beautifully-written, funny and trenchant book by Robert Kitson, my Guardian colleague, charts the rise of Exeter from obscurity to their current domination under Baxter. It captures Baxter’s pivotal role – but the coach himself needs to be persuaded to set aside thoughts of the new season so he can reflect on some seismic moments in this long journey.
“The night that still stands out as being something very special happened 10 years ago,” Baxter says, “when we won the away leg against Bristol in the Championship playoff final. That group did something nobody outside of us was expecting. It was an exceptional performance and we felt incredible emotion. But I felt something even bigger in the changing rooms with the players after winning the European Cup. It felt like a justification for everything you’ve done for so long. It was almost like a full stop at the end of a sentence you’ve been writing for 25 years.”
This season Saracens, Exeter’s bitter rivals, are due to play in the Championship. Last November the story broke that Saracens had ignored the salary cap repeatedly and they were eventually punished with relegation. Baxter remains blunt in his criticism. “It’s interesting,” he says with a little smile, “because we’ve had so much stick on social media it’s been scary. I’ve had hate mail from Saracens supporters and some parts do make me chuckle. I genuinely believe some Saracens supporters think it was Exeter Chiefs who paid Saracens players the [illegal] money. Just because we were prepared to comment, because it was obviously wrong, made us feel like people were accusing us of cheating.”
What was his initial reaction last November? “I always hoped the rumours were wrong because I didn’t want their success to be down to this. Saracens did very well to create a back story, didn’t they? Ah well, it isn’t anything to do with money, it’s to do with our culture, how we look after our players. But when the facts were proved, and it had clearly been happening for a number of years, it’s a different emotion.
“We’ve lost a number of Premiership finals to them and I would have been able to accept those defeats more easily if I’d known it was all real. It’s funny when people try to tie an honest reaction to jealousy but to me it doesn’t feel like success if you’ve done it by cheating.”
Does he look forward to one day playing and beating them again? “If Saracens come back and win the Premiership, I would have no problem. They’re the kind of group who’re probably capable of doing that but we just want a level playing field. We decided to stick to the salary cap and it’s not easy. The rules have changed again and they don’t make it any easier to comply. But you’ve got to keep your finger on it because it’s the right way.”
Exeter fans have also been angered because, despite the club’s great success, England pick fewer Exeter men than Scotland. Only three of their players are in the current England squad. Jack Nowell and Luke Cowan-Dickie would have made it five had they not been injured, but is Baxter surprised Eddie Jones ignored some key Exeter players again? “I am and I’m not,” he says with a shrug.
“But I’m massively frustrated for the players. They’ve had a fantastic number of seasons and performed well to get to the finals and win big games. Do I understand how it happens? Of course. I see people questioning every selection I make of the team here.”
If he was England coach how many more Exeter players would Baxter pick? “There would definitely be two or three more because I’ve watched our team beat some of these teams recently who have got numerous England players and I felt an Exeter player outperformed his opposite number. Eddie Jones won’t look at it like that. He will think: ‘Will he perform with a different combination around him?’ All I can say is that I’m watching our players perform fantastically well for an extended period. It’s frustrating but we’re looking to help them get recognition.”
A nightmare scenario for Chiefs fans is that Baxter will succeed Jones as England coach. “The interest to me would be purely to see whether I would enjoy doing it and whether I could have success,” Baxter says. “You want to try different experiences that become interesting because you want to see if you can do it.
Baxter points out that is different to him saying he wants the job now. But should the position be offered to him after the next World Cup, he would insist on doing it in his own style and differently to his current coaching. “There are lots of things you learn at club level that you can use but when you move into international rugby you have to be a different person. You can’t build a culture in six weeks. You can create an environment, and an understanding in your players about what you expect. But you need to work differently than in a day-to-day job.”
It’s a safe bet that Baxter, who is 49, will remain at the Chiefs for at least the next three years. More success is likely to follow but it will not be because Baxter looks to coaches in other sports. Unlike Jones, who cites the influence of Sir Alex Ferguson and Pep Guardiola, Baxter sticks to his core passion. “International coaches seem to do it non-stop. But I’m not one of these coaches who wants to go into loads of different sports. Stability is key as to how we introduce things here – in a very minor way, bit by bit, because we believe uncertainty or doubt creates the worst backdrop for a sports team.”
Baxter even does all Exeter’s analysis work himself – and he pinpoints this lonely graft as the defining ingredient in his success. “Initially, when I started doing it in the Championship, you learn so much. So many hidden patterns come out and since then I’ve done every senior game we’ve played. It means I know where the players really are. I know their body language, when they’re tired or when something must be mentally not quite right.
“It also helps massively with recruitment because once I think I like a player, I’ll sit down and code them, analyse them exactly the same way. You try and align them within your team and think how they could change or improve. You also suddenly see what somebody in a different team is doing that you might be missing. You’re always learning through analysis.”
Baxter has given up so much of his life to Exeter and he suggests that he has been selfish as his wife, Jo, had to assume many more responsibilities. “My kids are grown up and they actually think it was all OK. When I was coding on a Sunday I’d get up at the crack of dawn so I could take them swimming later. But my wife held it all together incredibly well in some pretty emotional times. She’s given stability because from a coaching perspective you have so many highs and lows. The last five years there’ve been a lot more highs because we tend to win more now.”
Exeter’s celebrations last month felt bitter-sweet without their families and fans. “I saw players getting emotional in a way I wouldn’t have expected. If their families had been there, they would have been halfway up the grandstand, hugging and celebrating. The emotion was all inward and after those first of moments of joy and ecstasy, the players were looking around. It was hard for them to express themselves.
“The whole of rugby has to hope those are the last big finals in such circumstances. We’ve got to hope that by next summer the finals are in front of full houses again – because there’re not going to be many more years if we haven’t got supporters there.”
It’s not long after 8am and Baxter needs to get cracking with another day of planned supremacy for the Chiefs. But before work can resume he nods emphatically when asked if he is concerned about the future of professional rugby during the pandemic. “100%. You would have to be ridiculously naïve to think TV alone can sustain rugby. It clearly can’t. What our crowd and our facility gives us makes the difference between our being a viable business or not.
“The news of the vaccine is fantastic but we need decent crowds in the New Year. By the time of the finals I hope we’ll be back to capacity crowds. It’s very important that the powers that be don’t allow a community sport to crumble. You’ve got to support us whether that’s allowing minimal crowds back or financial support. We’ve built something that’s part of the infrastructure of the south-west. It would be criminal to let it disappear.”