By Nick Cain
EXETER Chiefs are rolling towards Europe’s elite clubs like a dislodged boulder of Dartmoor granite. The newly- crowned English champions are determined to use their momentum from winning the Premiership title – claimed just seven seasons after winning promotion – to launch their bid to blast Saracens aside, ending their two-year reign as champions of Europe.
Rob Baxter, Exeter’s rugby director, says they will attempt to do it by employing the tried and tested methods that have taken them to the apex of the English game. In short that means dispensing with any new-fangled frills developed specially for Europe and opting instead for strong-arming the opposition with forward muscle, and depriving them of possession and territory until they crack.
There are plenty of French sides with the same method in mind, among them last year’s beaten finalists Clermont, former European Cup treble winners Toulon, and heavy duty outfits like Montpellier, Racing 92 and newcomers La Rochelle. However, they will have to go through the pain barrier to surpass the Exeter crew when it comes to monopolising the ball while playing a driving game of such intensity that their opponents are ready to drop.
Wasps coach Dai Young, who did not have to travel far to attend this week’s European Cup launch at the Ricoh Arena, has fresh first-hand experience of Exeter’s expertise at retaining possession having seen his side overwhelmed 31-17 on their visit to Devon for last weekend’s Premiership final re-run.
Young says the five tries his side conceded were a stark reminder of how formidable the Chiefs are becoming. “We defended for 34 to 36 phases at the start against Exeter, but then, after getting the ball back for two phases we gave it back to them and had to defend for another 28 phases. It is relentless. Joe (Launchbury) made 27 tackles – most of them with his face! If you take anything out of the game it is how disciplined Exeter are with the ball. They don’t give you many opportunities.”
As for creating opportunities of their own, with Henry Slade playing brilliantly against Wasps at outside-centre and veteran fly-half Gareth Steenson as an expert orchestrator, the Chiefs are well set according to Baxter.
Baxter says: “I’ve spoken to Eddie Jones about Henry – and the way he’s been playing at 13 I’d be kind of silly not to pick him there, especially with Gareth Steenson playing as well as he is for us at 10. If it works for us and for England, fantastic, and I’m not in a rush to move Henry from 13 when he puts in that sort of performance.”
Baxter says that Exeter will not be treading lightly when they get their European Cup bid underway, and hope to make the ground shake under Glasgow’s feet at Sandy Park a little over a week from now.
Baxter’s track record suggests that this is no idle chatter from an astute strategist who has a habit of delivering on his promises. It should be enough to make Glasgow and Exeter’s other Pool 3 rivals, Montpellier and Leinster, sit up and take notice.
He says that Exeter, who first qualified for Europe’s top club tournament only four years ago, and who played an epic losing quarter-final against Wasps in 2016, have found their sea legs.
“What I hope we’ve learned from previous European experiences, and big games we’ve played, is that in these early rounds it is about playing the way we play – being Exeter – and not feeling we’ve got to change something massively.”
Baxter says that Exeter’s early mindset was to prioritise the Premiership over Europe, but that it has altered radically. “A lot of our focus was on not leaving ourselves open to being relegation fodder. Since then, especially in the last two or three years, we’re learning that if what we do for Exeter is good enough to beat Saracens in a Premiership semi-final, or Wasps in a final, then it should be good enough in Europe.
“We don’t need to try and find a miracle offload, or miracle chip-and-chase, or a miracle pass to create something. What we have to do, is do what we do – and do it very well.”
Baxter says Exeter have good role models in the current European champions: “A good marker of that is Saracens. They are one of those teams that have an innate confidence to do what they do very well, and show across all competitions that it works.”
Baxter says that Exeter can turn their status of going into the tournament as English champions to their advantage, despite others gunning for them.
“What I’m hoping is that the positive element of being English champions – which means we can beat good sides doing what we do – can be a driver in Europe. That’s not to say that it’s just another game of Premiership rugby, but in a way that’s how we need to look at it, and push on through.”
The suggestion that Exeter will be helped by the size of their squad being the envy of other Premiership clubs prompts a thoughtful counter-attack from Baxter.
“This will sound strange, but what gives the club depth isn’t necessarily depth of players, but having confidence in those players. It’s about having the confidence that if they train together at the correct intensity you are comfortable picking them.
“I look around the competition and hear a lot of chat about injuries and weak teams – yet everyone is fulfilling their fixtures, and everyone has players they are not picking. Depth comes from more than having three quality players in each position. It’s more about backing what you’ve got, almost before you’ve got to back them.
“Our depth is not too bad, although in a couple of areas it’s not what it should be. Midfield is a little sparse, although Sam Hill and Ollie Devoto aren’t that far from coming back, and we’ve a few back row injuries. We are also a little stretched at hooker with Luke Cowan-Dickie out for a couple of months, but then Shaun Malton and Elvis Taione came through last week in a big game and performed very well.”
Baxter is also clear that the Chiefs are much more interested in winning than they are at winning friends, with away victories essential to making the European Cup quarter-finals.
“Away from home we are very comfortable with creating a game that suits us, but not the opposition. You can go away on a dreary, wet mid-season night and the home crowd want entertaining – so, if you almost refuse to let the game become entertaining, you can frustrate the opposition and the opposition crowd. It might mean that you kick a little more, or drive a few more line-outs and refuse to engage in an interesting game of rugby unless you are in the opposition third. Other times, if the conditions are good, you can starve the opposition and their crowd of their good moments by refusing to give the ball up.”
So, what is the key to Exeter’s expertise at keeping the ball? Baxter responds: “The bit that most people miss is that you have to get a group of players who want to go out in a match and do that first. Then the training gives you the quality to do it in a game. But these guys have to decide first that they want to do it, or it is irrelevant.”
He adds: “We are prepared to defend the opposition by keeping the ball, and we have the players who are prepared to wear teams down by working hard – and who understand that it takes 80 minutes. We expect our players to train very hard, and the key thing we aim to do is to make training days link with match days.”
Baxter’s enthusiasm is boundless despite the challenge of qualifying from an intensely competitive group. “The most interesting pool has to be ours. You’ve got us sitting at the top of the Premiership, you’ve got Montpellier at the top of the Top 14, Glasgow are top of their part of the PRO14, and Leinster have only lost one game.”
He says: “So that’s why I am so determined to keep it very simple. We are just going to talk about what we want to achieve in that first and second round. And what will be after that, will be.
“We are not going to try to make some clever plan of how we are going to find our way through the pool. What we’ve failed to do before is roughly be in charge of our own destiny after those first two rounds. We’ve got out of the pool before, but what we’ve been good at is almost miracle performances.”
Baxter explains: “Cardiff Blues came to us three or four years ago with seven or eight internationals, including British and Irish Lions, and we just blew them off the field. Two years ago Ospreys came to us in an all-or-nothing game for them after we lost there, and we also blew them off the pitch. Last year we went away to Bordeaux having lost at home with 65 per cent possession, but couldn’t score, and a week later with them needing just to win to get a quarter-final, we beat them. So, we are capable of big European performances.”
Baxter’s parting shot asks for more. “What we haven’t done is take charge of a European pool, and the mark of us growing up is to do that, so other teams are chasing us rather than us chasing them.”
Exeter are ready to rumble.