Tuesday 26 March 2019

Alan Quinlan: Exeter have become the Munster of English rugby

 

Jack Yeandle of Exeter Chiefs leads out his team for the Premiership game against the Worcester Warrior last month – the Sandy Park venue may sound like a children’s play area but Rob Baxter has has turned it into a rugby fortress. Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Jack Yeandle of Exeter Chiefs leads out his team for the Premiership game against the Worcester Warrior last month – the Sandy Park venue may sound like a children’s play area but Rob Baxter has has turned it into a rugby fortress. Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

It will be 10 years next month since Munster last hosted the All Blacks at Thomond Park, 10 years since history threatened to repeat itself until a late Joe Rokocoko score saved the blushes of the illustrious tourists.

It will also be 10 years since Rob Baxter, a man who has lived and breathed Exeter rugby for all of his 47 years, started developing his vision for what kind of club he wanted the Chiefs to become.

Watching on from across the Irish Sea, then as forwards coach of the club, Baxter saw something special in the way an understrength Munster rattled the most famous international team in the world.

He loved what he saw, and the next day he approached former Munster man Tom Hayes - the brother of 'Bull' and a fella who became a cult hero at Exeter - explaining that he wanted the Chiefs to weave that deep connection with their fans; to build something special, something sustainable, something different in the English professional game.

Within 12 months, Baxter, who was carried around the club as a newborn, operated the scoreboard as a child while his father was on the committee, played more than 300 games in a 14-year career, a decade of which as captain, became the head coach of Exeter Chiefs.

In that first season at the helm he guided Exeter to the promised land of the Premiership for the first time, beginning one of the most remarkable stories in professional rugby.

While Baxter once looked at Munster enviously, he is now being lauded, and rightly so, for building a profitable, self-sufficient rugby club which seems to have the right structures in place to progress from their maiden Premiership win two seasons ago.

And in an era where Premiership rugby is becoming more closely aligned with the flippant spending of the Premier League, the fact that Exeter are sitting pretty at the summit of England's top tier, having secured 29 points from a possible 30 so far this season, is as reassuring as it is impressive.

Baxter's pragmatic approach to recruitment is another trait that has caught the eye - he does not throw money at problems in the hope that it will somehow plug the gaping holes.

Alex Cuthbert was their only signing over the summer - despite a number of players going in the other direction - the out-of-favour Wales winger heading to the south-west of England to reinvigorate his career with a World Cup on the horizon.

There are few better places to go for players seeking a rugby renaissance. Baxter has assembled a squad that may be low on blockbuster names but is full of players who have thrived under his leadership after they started to stagnate elsewhere.

Phil Dollman, an uncapped Welshman, is in his 10th season at the Chiefs and has been a revelation since making the move from the Dragons in 2009, having played in almost every position across the backline.

Professional

Gareth Steenson is another case and point; once on Ulster's books, he has built a professional career that most Irish out-halves could only dream about. Another uncapped player plying his trade with one of the best teams in Europe.

The Irish academy systems are world-renowned but Exeter are building something special from the grassroots too, and Baxter is not shy about putting his faith in the foundations he played a big part in laying.

The strong relationships built with the likes of Plymouth and Cornish Pirates have helped to develop star names such as Jack Nowell, Henry Slade and Luke Cowan-Dickie, and having such a strong core of players from that part of the country has strengthened the team's bond with their supporters.

"A lot of people are saying Exeter have made only one signing but you have got to have forward-thinking plans," Baxter said on the eve of the current season.

"If a senior player leaves and another senior player comes in from somewhere else, you can get yourself into a cycle that is not necessarily going to move you forward.

"We may suffer in the short-term from reducing our age profile when it comes to things like the Premiership Cup (seen as a competition for developing players), but if our academy players play a lot of important, good rugby, that will be more beneficial to us."

Sandy Park may sound like a children's play area but Baxter has turned it into a rugby fortress that the cathedral city's early Roman settlers would have been proud of.

It is also a home ground that Munster would gladly call their own and the travelling support may well be struck by how familiar it feels this afternoon.

Despite sharing so many similarities on and off the field, the pleasantries will be in short supply today.

Desperate

Exeter are desperate to prove they have what it takes to compete on two fronts - much like Ireland in Rugby World Cups, the quarter-final stage has become their glass ceiling in Europe and they are desperate to break through it.

Having pushed Leinster so close home and away last season, they know they are not as far from the peak of Europe as their record might indicate, and considering how they have started their domestic campaign, setting the pace with Saracens, they are rightly being considered as realistic Champions Cup contenders.

The deeper you go into the Exeter story the more impressive it becomes, so it is no surprise that Baxter is being touted as the next England boss in waiting, or that his role changed from head coach to director of rugby just over 12 months ago.

Much like Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, Baxter is known for his meticulous attention to detail; analysing opposition teams with a fine toothcomb to discover habits that the untrained eye would miss.

While they are one of the few profitable clubs in England, they are not short on funds. Exeter is a wealthy part of the country but those in charge of the pursestrings spend their money wisely, and reinvest it within the club, which is owned by its members.

Just last month the club got the green light to start building a £25m (€29m) hotel next to the stadium with Chiefs chairman Tony Rowe explaining that commercial ventures such as this will protect the viability of the sporting organisation.

Rowe once said that if you sell out your ground four times a year it means you don't have enough seats, so as Exeter become a bigger force in the English game he, understandably, also has a stadium redevelopment plan in the pipeline.

On the field, Munster will have their work cut out today. Leinster showed last year that to beat the Chiefs you need to starve them of possession and play the game in the right areas. Knowing how to beat Exeter is one thing, but successfully executing the plan is another.

Exeter's approach is based around pressurising the opposition, suffocating them, and forcing them into mistakes, so Johann van Graan's side will need to keep their errors to the minimum this afternoon if they are to get their Champions Cup campaign off to the perfect start.

Physically, there's no doubt Exeter can match Munster and I'm sure Baxter has been drilling into his side that they must kick cleverly as he will want to limit the time and space afforded to Munster's back-three and Joey Carbery in broken play.

Munster have enough weapons to ask serious questions of the Chiefs, although I suspect they will ultimately have to settle for coming away from Sandy Park with a losing bonus point.

Defeat in the first outing of the European campaign would be far from ideal, but in the circumstances, I don't think that it would be cause to sound the emergency siren just yet.

After all, 13 years ago a Munster side that Baxter greatly admired got walloped at Sale in our first European game of the 2005/'06 season, and things still worked out more than all right in end.

 

SCOUTING REPORT

EXETER CHIEFS

League position: First

Coach: Rob Baxter (11th season)

How they beat you: By kicking the ball into the opposition’s ’22 and forcing the mistake. Keeping the ball for long periods and targeting tries over penalty goals and backing their forwards to win collisions.

How you beat them: Make good decisions, don’t make mistakes and take your chances when they come. Leinster showed last season that patience is everything against Exeter. If you can keep the ball against them, you’ve got a chance.

Player to watch: England winger Jack Nowell is a man who can make something out of nothing and his combination of excellent basics, pace and power makes him a real threat to Munster.

 

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