Hail to the chief! Local hero Rob Baxter was the architect of Exeter’s European triumph… his adult life has been spent helping the club reach the pinnacle and the win was their finest hour
- Rob Baxter was visibly emotional after Exeter Chiefs become kings of Europe
- He has helped the club rise into the Premiership and also win the league title
- The decade-long sporting fairytale has culminated in the club’s finest hour
No wonder Rob Baxter was so emotional. All of his adult life has been spent helping his beloved local club climb to this glorious pinnacle.
On his watch, Exeter have risen from the Championship to the Premiership, won the domestic cup, then the league title and now they stand proudly as the new champions of Europe.
It has been a decade-long sporting fairytale – with Baxter’s fingerprints all over it.
Rob Baxter, the local Exeter hero, was the architect of their European triumph at the weekend
First as a player, in the footsteps of his father and alongside his brother, then as a long-time captain and latterly as head coach, then director of rugby, the 49-year-old has elevated the Chiefs to the top table of the game in the northern hemisphere.
What happened at Ashton Gate on Saturday, in the greatest continental final, represented Exeter and Baxter’s finest hour.
In the build-up, he had been asked about his quarter-century of service and issued a polite clarification, saying: ‘It’s actually over 30 years here. The first game I played was when I was 16 or 17, so that’s 33, 34 years ago. It feels like the blink of an eye.’
Exeter had defeated Racing 92 at Ashton Gate and marked their finest hour with the trophy
Having given body and soul to the Chiefs for so long, it was understandable Baxter was overcome by a mixture of jubilation and relief. Even an hour after the game, his mind was still so scrambled that he kept referring to a one-point win when it ended 31-27, and he struggled to hold back the tears.
When the deed was done, he made an important phone call. ‘I rang my wife Jo,’ said Baxter. ‘She was pretty emotional and it made me a bit emotional. We have been together a long time – my whole playing career and coaching career – and she has seen the highs and lows.
‘It was a special couple of minutes. To start with, she was just screaming at me in emotional joy, then we managed to talk about the journey to get here.’
There were hugs and handshakes for his players, then Baxter broke off from a pitch-side TV interview to watch them celebrating in a huddle with the Heineken Champions Cup trophy.
Baxter (second right) was visibly emotional after the game and looked almost paternalistic
He had a look of almost paternalistic pride in the men he has moulded into European conquerors. Later, his eyes glistened as he spoke high up in a stand, before a moment of solitary contemplation as he waited for a lift to take him back down to the changing-room party. Baxter is an eloquent man, so even as he struggled to stay composed, he spoke well, from the heart, about what it meant to him and his squad.
‘I’m a bit all over the place,’ he said. ‘The game happened and the result happened but now we are sitting in a quiet, concrete bowl and it doesn’t feel real. That’s probably what is holding back the reality which will come over the next couple of days.
‘This is the most special moment. It is a great reward for a group of players, for what they have done for four or five years. They’ve had a lot of heartache but they have kept fighting. This is vindication of a group of players who care about each other and want to achieve something.’
He could have been talking about himself. Vividly illustrated on Saturday was how much Baxter cares about his players and wants to guide them to epic achievements. They have responded to his passion, his coaching methods and his man-management instincts.
Exeter are just the sixth English club to become kings of Europe and can even seal the double
They are just the sixth English club to become European champions and they will seal a famous Double if they can win the Premiership final against Wasps on Saturday.
The Baxter family are already part of the fabric of their club and community, and Rob – who was given a place on the board in 2018 – has long since entered local folklore. He has done so by being an engaging, enthusiastic figure who enjoys his work, but also a canny and tough customer when required.
He has recruited shrewdly – choosing people who are the right fit rather than chasing reputations. And while quick to praise his team, he will wield the stick, as shown after a defeat at Northampton in December 2018, when Baxter said: ‘Sometimes a Christmas party after beating Saracens isn’t the best way to prepare.’
Baxter is regularly touted as an England head coach in waiting, despite his repeated attempts to dismiss such a scenario – certainly in the near future.
Despite repeatedly dismissing the scenario, Baxter is touted as an England coach in waiting
He is the leading domestic candidate to one day replace Eddie Jones but before last year’s World Cup, Exeter chairman Tony Rowe was bullish about keeping him at Sandy Park.
That is certainly the case at this stage with a Double looming but the situation may change.
By the time of the next World Cup in 2023, Baxter’s Exeter may have accumulated several more titles and prizes. Perhaps then, if the stars align and the RFU pursue him, he will be persuaded to answer his country’s call.
For now though, his objective is to recover from the emotional turmoil of the Chiefs’ super Saturday and plot another one next weekend.
Division Four to Kings of Europe
by Will Kelleher
1996: Promoted from Courage League Division 4 with Walsall, Clifton, Redruth and Havant. Lose the Pilkington Cup quarter-final 31-0 to top-division Wasps.
1997: Move up again as they leave Courage League Div 3 behind with Fylde.
1998: Eleventh in Allied Dunbar Premiership 2 with six wins from 22 – below the likes of Waterloo, Orrell and Moseley.
1999: Revert to their ‘Chiefs’ name – which they were referred to in the 1930s – and finish fifth in Premiership 2.
2000-2008: Rooted in National Division One. They finish second in 2005 and 2008, runners-up in the Powergen Shield in 2002, 2003 and EDF Energy Trophy in 2007 and 2008. In 2006 they sell the County Ground and move to Sandy Park.
2009: Rob Baxter, now retired from playing, takes over as head coach on an interim basis in March after Pete Drewett is sacked. By May, his role is made permanent. Exeter second again behind Leeds.
2010: Exeter are finally promoted to the Premiership for the first time, as Gareth Steenson kicks them up over two legs against Bristol.
2010-2013: Exeter stay up in 2010, finishing eighth, then make the Heineken Cup for the first time in 2012 having finished fifth, but drop down to sixth in 2013.
2014: Exeter win their first top-flight trophy; the LV= Cup, by beating Northampton 15-8 in the final. Henry Slade, Dave Ewers, Ben Moon, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Steenson all play. Finish eighth in the league.
2015: Rise to fifth in the Premiership, but are runners-up in the LV= Cup.
2016: Play in their first Premiership final, losing 28-20 to Saracens. Make first European quarter-final, losing 25-24 to Wasps.
2017: Crowned English champions for the first time, beating Wasps 23-20 after extra time, Steenson kicking the vital goal.
2018-2019: Lose back-to-back finals to Saracens, despite finishing top of the table. In 2018, they win the Anglo-Welsh Cup.
2020: Crowned European champions, beating Racing 92 31-27 in their first ever final.
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