SIR CLIVE WOODWARD: Rob Baxter has moulded his wonderful Champions Cup finalist Exeter team in his image… and the end of the Saracens era MUST spark change
- Exeter Chiefs beat Toulouse to reach the final of the Heineken Champions Cup
- Their terrific season is the culmination of the work coach Rob Baxter has done
- Meanwhile, Saracens’ 19-15 defeat to Racing 92 marked the end of an era
- Now, the fall of Saracens needs to spark change for English rugby going forward
If ever a team were moulded in the shape of their coach, it must be Exeter and Rob Baxter, who grows more impressive with every season in charge of the Chiefs.
There was a moment midway through the first half on Saturday when BT Sport went to Baxter for his comments in the stand.
Now these moments can be tricky. His side had scarcely touched the ball for the first 20 minutes, Toulouse were attacking from all angles, a couple of Exeter lineouts had gone awry and Yoann Huget had just been bundled into touch when he looked like scoring.
Rob Baxter has continued to impress in charge of Champions Cup finalists Exeter Chiefs
The Chiefs beat Toulouse 28-18 to reach the final of the Champions Cup on Saturday
The Chiefs were playing with the wind but already trailed 6-0.
This could be interesting, I thought, as they spoke to the Exeter coach. It was but not in the way you might think. Baxter was calm, chatty, unflustered and in total control.
To summarise his comments: it was early days, they were only 6-0 down against one of the great teams in Europe, they had an 80-minute gameplan and all they needed to do initially was stay in touch on the scoreboard and his team would come good.
While he was talking, Luke Cowan-Dickie dropped a ball when Toulouse threw long and a good chance to set up an attack went begging. He casually commented that normally Luke caught those but there was no admonishment. He knew that Cowan-Dickie probably wouldn’t drop another pass that day and he didn’t.
The Premiership side were the image of their coach in their performance: calm and composed
No stress, no anxiety, no panic or over-reaction. I thought he would take a flask out shortly and pour himself a coffee! He trusts his players implicitly — they are handpicked and nurtured by him — and they share his patience and trust.
Chiefs are now a very mature side. They have been through all sorts together and learned their lesson, and they demonstrated that against a very good, star-studded Toulouse side.
To win that comfortably was a magnificent performance.
Three Chiefs stood out for me: Henry Slade and the two Simmonds brothers. Slade is now the complete package and the individual, playing at 13, who England need to base their back division around going forward. He is playing that well and he is that good.
They will now face Racing 92 in the final of the competition after the French side beat Saracens
Selection debate for England around him should be history — consistent selection whenever possible is key at the international level. Joe Simmonds is rocketing into England contention.
He is quick, clever, hard tackling and an 85 per cent goal kicker. Baxter thinks he has leadership qualities and made him captain at a young age.
Brother Sam, meanwhile, is a force of nature at No 8 and what might have impressed Eddie Jones even more was his defensive work and adapting to the new breakdown laws. The Simmonds brothers should be putting massive pressure on Owen Farrell and Billy Vunipola.
Finally, massive congratulations to Bristol, who produced a cracking performance to beat Bordeaux-Begles in the Challenge Cup semi-final.
In Pat Lam, they have a Baxter-like figure who defines the team and I love their dynamic approach.
Henry Slade was one of the standout Chiefs stars, who is ready-made for England now
The Saracens era ends
All periods and eras of dominance come to an end and, as many have commented including Mark McCall himself, Saturday’s defeat by Racing 92 undoubtedly marked the end of the great Saracens epoch.
I believe — and hope — it will result in a sea change for English and England rugby.
For too long we have slavishly imitated the Saracens way. It worked brilliantly for them and their set of players but their formula is on borrowed time.
Let me first state I am full of admiration for what they have achieved on the field and the individuals concerned — and the salary cap controversy, for me, does not detract from that. They were proud warriors and a winning machine.
Saracens’ dominance of their era is finally over, ended by a Juan Imhoff try at the death
In McCall they have the No 1 coach in Europe and somebody who should have been targeted for the England job.
The Saracens approach was high-intensity, risk-averse rugby and it brought them silverware because nobody could match their fitness, teamwork, tackling, camaraderie, coaching nous… and they had Owen Farrell to kick the goals!
But their approach has been limited, especially their endless use of the box kick and the ridiculous caterpillar that sets it all up. That is slow, stifling, negative, boring, predictable and diminishes the game. And in true English style it was widely copied.
It became a blueprint — scrum-halves picked for their kicking and not their passing.
It will kill rugby as a spectacle if we don’t wean ourselves off it.
English rugby now needs to have a re-think with the Saracens blueprint on borrowed time
Rugby has a load of challenges to meet now and a game based around caterpillars, scrum-halves faffing around for ever, high balls, kick chases, knock-ons and dropped takes followed by a scrum that never seems to end is reducing the appeal of the game to players and spectators.
It is also a game plan that will never win England another World Cup.
I salute a great Saracens team who achieved everything despite their internationals and England contingent often being absent on duty for their countries, or resting from the Test scene injured.
The long lens of history will show them to have been an exceptional team and group… but it is time to move on.
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