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'A lot of teams would like to have those unsuccessful seasons'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

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Rob Baxter claimed on Saturday night that numerous clubs would love to have the type of season that Exeter have endured – getting knocked out of the Heineken Champions Cup at the round of 16 stage and struggling to make the Gallagher Premiership end-of-season playoffs. The 2020 European champions were eliminated by Irish opposition for the second season running when last year’s quarter-final loss to Leinster was followed up by a 26-10 defeat in Limerick to Munster which resulted in the Chiefs exiting the tournament on the back of a 34-23 aggregate loss.

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Despite being without the injured Sam Simmonds, Exeter had their noses in front on the aggregate score until the hour mark at Thomand Park after Jacques Vermeulen’s unconverted 49th-minute try left them trailing in Saturday’s rematch by only 13-10 following last weekend’s 13-8 victory at Sandy Park.

However, they failed to protect that slender two-point advantage and were swept aside by a compelling Munster finish, Joey Carbery kicking eight points to add to a 73rd minute try from Damian de Allende on an afternoon when some historically reliable parts of Exeter’s game left them down, namely their work at the breakdown and the boot of Joe Simmonds.

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Their exit means that just two English teams – Sale and Leicester – have made it through to the last eight in the Champions Cup and the lack of European action has now piled the pressure on the inconsistent form of Exeter in the Premiership.

They have qualified for the last six league finals at Twickenham, lifting the title twice, but they have played a game more than their playoff rivals this season and are vulnerable to losing hold of the fourth-place they currently occupy as their three-game run-in commences with a visit to fierce rivals Saracens next weekend.

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It’s a gloomy picture following the tremendous European/Premiership double Exeter success in 2020 but Baxter insisted it was a situation that numerous clubs would enviously love to have – a run to the last 16 in Europe and to still have a say in the English title race. Asked by RugbyPass in Limerick if their European elimination to Munster signalled the end of the era of the great trophy-winning Chiefs side, the coach said: “I wouldn’t say so because we have still got some players who were involved in those years who are the right age range, are still improving, are having very good careers and having very good games for us.

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“But what you are starting to see now is probably sometimes you need that failure. It sounds a bit weird because we were in the last 16 of the Heineken Cup and we have lost coming away to Munster and won at home, we are still in the top four of the Premiership, albeit clinging in there. A lot of teams would go, ‘I’d like to have those unsuccessful seasons’.

“But for us, we may need something that feels a little bit off and not quite right to put that stopper and allow ourselves a proper pre-season, address a few things and kind of not necessarily restart but just re-kick some of the key foundation¬†elements that make you a solid side. That is the feeling I get. Some of the things that used to make us very hard to beat, some of those have drifted off and we are a little easy to beat in a few areas now and we have to address that and just tinker with a few things.”

The word from the post-match dressing room, according to Baxter, was a realisation that Exeter can’t allow themselves to get pressurised the way that Munster came at them if they are to get back to being a dominant team in both Europe and England. “It’s (a feeling of) frustration because the guys know they created a lot of problems for ourselves,” he continued.

“It’s a really difficult one. We are not on the field, we don’t really know the pressure the guys are feeling and we don’t know the intensity of everything. Did we get pushed into coming off game plan or did we let ourselves get pushed off game plan, that is the battle? We cannot let ourselves get pushed away from what we need to do, that is what good teams do and we couldn’t do that today. Some of that was down to Munster, some down to us. Our challenge will be to improve.”

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Earlier in his short post-game briefing, Baxter placed the blame for the defeat on Exeter not being confrontational enough. “We started pretty brightly but then our defence was so far off what we achieved last week, its intensity, its kind of collision quality, that worried me a little bit.

“To be fair to the lads we fought our way back into the game and scored our second try and it became a tight contest again, but you kind of know a day is drifting away from you when the opposition kicker [Joey Carbery, who kicked 16 points off the tee] can’t miss from anywhere and your kicker [Joe Simmonds, who drew a blank with his kicks] can’t seem to hit them from anywhere.

“You look and you think if that had been a 50/50 kicking battle we would have been in it until the death, but that is some of the simple things that happened today. Munster were where they needed to be and we weren’t and it is a great credit to Munster and the crowd and the emotion they created together, it was fantastic for them but we needed to be better than we were. We weren’t confrontational enough or competitive enough in enough areas.

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“The breakdown was frustrating because at half-time we kind of solved the problem for the majority of the second half and that led to our second try, we were creating momentum, we were keeping the ball and keeping the ball quite simply as well.

“That is the frustration, that some of the very simple things, I am not saying they are easy but simple things around the golden rules on how you play, how you put your game together, we drifted off relatively easily in the first half and that is a frustration.

That is a very big frustration from a coaching perspective because when we did those things, we kept the ball and we kept going and we were fine. As I said, if we could have started the game with that clarity of thought we probably would have seen ourselves in a lot better position with the wind to have a better position in the second half than we had.”

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