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Exeter Chiefs’ coach Rob Baxter on the Rugby World Cup, emotions and why he loves Devon

PUBLISHED: 15:35 18 September 2015

Rob Baxter, photographed by Matt Austin

Rob Baxter, photographed by Matt Austin

Matt Austin Images 2013

He’s the rugby coach who thinks beyond the boundaries of the pitch and it could ultimately lead him to the biggest job of all. Alexis Bowater meets Rob Baxter to talk rugby, World Cups...and emotions

Rob BaxterRob Baxter

A new £1 million pitch has been laid at Sandy Park in anticipation of this year’s Rugby World Cup. On the summer day I visit coach Rob Baxter there’s silence in the deserted ground, save for one lone man pushing a petrol mower across it, past a sign reading: “Grass grows in inches and is killed by the foot! KEEP OFF.”

It’s hard to imagine the hullabaloo there will be here later this month and next when the party comes to Exeter. All three matches are sold out. Figures show the 12,645 capacity ground could have been sold out three times over.

There’s a buzz about Baxter and for good reason. Under his stewardship the team have been transformed into a formidable presence on the national, and international, rugby scene. Add in the mighty development work on the ground and infrastructure under the stewardship of Chiefs Chairman and CEO Tony Rowe and you have a success story many could only dream about just a few years ago.

After the success he has had with the Chiefs, whispers abound about Baxter’s future and whether he is being lined up for ‘the England job.’

Rob Baxter, photographed by Matt AustinRob Baxter, photographed by Matt Austin

He’s a farmer’s son from Devon but his approach to the game and the players has been transforming fortunes all over the world. The ‘Baxter magic’ of repute is a team game for him, starting from the moment the squad even meets.

This year’s pre-season workout was a weekend bonding bash in Benidorm for them all, from the youngest to the most seasoned. It’s part of his unashamed commitment to getting ‘emotional buy-in’ from his players.

And that seems to be the bottom line. Not just dedication, fitness, hard training or tactics, but being open and honest about what your sport actually means to you. Emotion is not something I expected a rough, tough rugby player to cite as the number one training tenet.

“We are pretty happy to talk about being pretty emotional about what we do and actually expecting an emotional buy-in,” he explains.

Rob Baxter, photographed by Matt AustinRob Baxter, photographed by Matt Austin

“It actually feels quite uncomfortable sometimes to expect to be like that with strangers to start with and I suppose that is why - you talk about these pre-season trips - why they are very important because if you are going to ask players for emotional buy-in then you have to actually give them a chance to be together and to be friendly and to enjoy their time together and make proper friendships and work hard at being good guys who you do want to be friends with.

“We talk a lot about those qualities of being a good guy, the kind of guy that people want to be around and you want to spend time with because, ultimately, when you are working hard and things get tough, when you have got nothing else then you have got your mates haven’t you and you have your friends and you have your family and those are the things that are always very strong.”

No doubt his own experience, as player and captain of Exeter for an illustrious career of his own on the pitch, gives him the insight and lack of ego that make him focus on his tactical key to winning.

“It is not so much the results that drive you as a coach, although that is important, it is the reaction of the players,” he says.

“If the players react well to you and they are positive about what you are trying to do and they are enjoying what you are trying to do and you start to think that they are beginning to show their potential then that is your reward as a coach.

“I don’t sit here thinking ‘How are we going to win next season?’ I think: how can we get the best out of the players we’ve got?”

I didn’t expect to interview a rugby man through and through and spend the time hearing about emotions and other people’s feelings, and how harnessing them is the best way to win. But if there is a secret to the Baxter magic then this is it. It’s not about the goal; it’s about the team you create to get to it.

Sandy Park has been transformed by this man and his teams. No better an accolade can he receive for his work than to host World Cup games there this year.

There was a game towards the end of the season last year that took £126,000 over the bar. I’d wager there’s going to be more than £11 a head going through those tills this September.

“When you come here it feels like a rugby club that is enjoying being in the Premiership,” says Baxter.

“We are fantastically located within the country to bring World Cup games to a hotbed of rugby. The whole package to have a World Cup game here is first class.”

But how long are you going to be here? I ask. What about the rumours about the England job?

He laughs. “I have just started a three-year contract and I am in no rush to get away from Exeter. I am a proud Englishman and I’m never going to say that I never want to coach my country, of course not, but at the end of the day that is not the most important thing to me. As I said, my emotional buy-in is to Exeter.”

So what would you say to the England team in this World Cup even if you’re not coaching them? It’s no surprise to hear the core advice in his reply: “There are a handful of countries that can have genuine aspirations to win the tournament and England are definitely one of them. England will just have to harness the emotional power that a home World Cup can bring.”

Ten things Rob Baxter loves about living in Devon

1 The people (My whole family live in Devon, although my Mum and Dad were born in Lancashire they met and married in Devon and raised their family here. I was born here as was my wife, Jo, and children, Jack and Annie. We are proud Devonians; I think it says a lot about us Devonians that so many people find they want to stay here once they visit!).

2 Countryside (I have been a farmer longer than I have been involved with professional sport so I have a great appreciation of being out on the land and it is still great to stop and just look over the farm and the surrounding fields).

3 Beaches (I used to spend a week every summer with my grandparents in Braunton and I have grown to love the beaches up there, as a family we have had some great times in North Devon.

4 The weather (The more I have to travel around the country, the more I appreciate those few extra degrees of warmth that we always have. The players who move down here notice it straight away).

5 Food and drink (Exeter and the surrounding area have some great restaurants and pubs and the best use local produce. Particular favourites are Paul Parnell’s restaurant, The Jack in the Green in Rockbeare and La Petite Maison in Topsham.

6 The Exeter Chiefs (It goes without saying that the club has been a huge part of my life and to see so many people getting the enjoyment they do from supporting and following the club is very satisfying).

7 The City (I think Exeter is just what you want a city to be, it isn’t so big that people get lost in the hurly burly and things get swallowed up but at the same time you can wander around and find pretty much anything you want. Places such as the Quay just add to the appeal).

8 The rugby community (A lot of people are probably unaware just how many people contribute their time to the sport all over Devon at all different levels of the game, it is rare that they are not good people and rugby clubhouses are some of the most welcoming places you will ever experience).

9 The villages (Is there anything better than going for a short drive and suddenly discovering some of the beautiful villages that abound in Devon, often just minutes away from the bigger towns and cities? Many of the Exeter Chiefs rugby staff and players are now settled in these places that have their own communities, with plenty of social events, pubs, cricket teams, primary schools etc and they love it).

10 Protecting the rest of Britain from Cornwall! (This is a bit tongue in cheek but I work with and coach several Cornish people and I always feel that us Devonians are responsible for providing the buffer between mainland England and these odd people!!)

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