Egoless Rob Baxter has driven Exeter Chiefs to the summit - will he stop to savour his achievement?

Daniel Schofield
·5-min read
Exeter Chiefs' Head Coach Rob Baxter during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby first semi-final match between Exeter Chiefs and Bath Rugby  - Getty Images
Exeter Chiefs' Head Coach Rob Baxter during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby first semi-final match between Exeter Chiefs and Bath Rugby - Getty Images

When the day comes that Rob Baxter has his own statue unveiled outside Sandy Park – as is surely a matter of time now – the Exeter director of rugby will have to be frogmarched at knifepoint to the event.

An hour after the most nerve-shredding of Heineken Champions Cup finals, an emotional Baxter was supping a can of Heineken, reflecting on the dedication and sacrifice of his players, their families, his coaching team and his wife, Jo. Not once did he stop to consider his own personal achievement in becoming the first English coach to have won both a Premiership and European title since Dean Richards some 18 years ago. 

Richards, however, accomplished that with Leicester Tigers, the undisputed powerhouses of English rugby. Around that time, Exeter were pottering about the lower reaches of the English rugby pyramid. Since taking over as head coach in 2009, Baxter has guided Exeter step by step to the very summit of the club game. The only parable accomplishment in English sport would be Brian Clough’s European titles with Nottingham Forest. 

Unlike Old Big ‘Ead, Baxter is truly a coach without ego – and for that reason probably entirely unsuited to the megalomaniac world of international coaching. The natural assumption is that Baxter will feel that he has outgrown Exeter and would jump at the chance of succeeding Eddie Jones as England head coach. Yet why would he want to leave? More money certainly. More prestige perhaps. But as you could see by his megawatt smile while watching his players celebrate with the trophy there is no guarantee that bring any greater satisfaction. 

The sole concession he made to winning the European title was to break a habit of a lifetime and not complete the coding of the match on Saturday night. Instead it was undertaken on Sunday morning in the company of a Bloody Mary. The players will also come in later than normal on Monday to begin their preparations for the Premiership final against Wasps on Saturday. 

Exeter Chiefs celebrate after their victory during the Heineken Champions Cup Final - Getty Images
Exeter Chiefs celebrate after their victory during the Heineken Champions Cup Final - Getty Images

In truth, the match defied a lot of conventional analysis. It had everything with eight tries, a boatload of errors, glorious attack and resolute defence  apart from a semblance of structure. Like a James Joyce novel, it was a complete mess and a masterpiece at the same time. As Baxter said it was a very un-Exeter like game. More than one player told Baxter, ‘Rob, imagine if we had played well.’

Rushing into a 14-0 lead inside 15 minutes through Luke Cowan-Dickie and Sam Simmonds’ tries and then reestablishing a 21-12 and 28-17 advantages after scores by Harry Williams and Henry Slade, Racing continually pegged them back. By the time that Tomas Francis was sin-binned with nine minutes to go for a deliberate knock-on, Exeter’s lead stood at one point and all the momentum was on Racing’s side. 

Visions of the spurned 11-point advantage in the Premiership final against Saracens last year started to rear their head. But when they really needed to Exeter’s defence held firm in face of a 19-phase siege before Joe Simmonds’ last-minute penalty sealed the victory. 

“This group of players have had a lot of heartache and they have never backed away or not kept fighting,” Baxter said. “I think it is a huge vindication for them of how they have kept working, kept fighting, kept trying, always looking take the next step forward and today I think they have taken a huge one.”

It was particularly cathartic for centre Slade, almost 12 months on from losing the World Cup final with England. “I was just thinking earlier actually, yesterday, that winning this would make me feel way better,” Slade said. “This is obviously the next best thing. Winning this is unbelievable. It was twitchy-bum time at the end wasn’t it? The way the boys stuck in it, especially with 14 men at the end…that was the message the whole game, ‘Just make sure we stay in it, stay in it’. The way we dug in and defended our line in the last bit was unbelievable.”

Exeter Chiefs' Henry Slade scores his sides fourth try during the European Champions Cup Final  - PA
Exeter Chiefs' Henry Slade scores his sides fourth try during the European Champions Cup Final - PA

In many places this is being described as a fairytale come true by the sons of farmers, trawlermen and butchers. Yet there is no secret supply of pixie dust at Sandy Park but a tonne of hard work by a group of excellent rugby players. Right now, man-of-the-match Joe Simmonds, player-of-the tournament Sam Simmonds and second row Jonny Hill are playing the best rugby of any English players in their position, but indications are that they will not be included in Jones’ squad for the autumn matches. Go figure.

If there is a narrative it should be one of hope that any club with the right backing and especially the right coach can scale Everest. Could Cornish Pirates or Leeds Carnegie become European champions in 2030? Right now they should be saying why not? – providing a mechanism for promotion to the Premiership remains in place. 

Baxter, meanwhile, is already plotting the second leg of the double. You only hope he finds the time to savour his own personal accomplishment. “The game happened, the result happened and all those things happened but now we are sitting a quiet, concrete bowl and it doesn’t feel real,” Baxter said. “That’s probably is what is holding back the reality which will probably come over the next couple of days.”