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Exeter revisit 'very powerful emotions' of Saracens' salary scandal

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

Rob Baxter has revisited how the fallout over the Saracens salary cap saga helped to fuel Exeter to win their 2019/20 Gallagher Premiership/Heineken Champions Cup double. Having beaten the Chiefs in successive league finals in 2018 and 2019, the Londoners were automatically relegated from the top flight in January 2020 for financially cooking the books and the dismay felt at Sandy Park fed into what became the Devon club’s remarkable run to win both trophies after the season restarted that August following a five-month pandemic stoppage.

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The controversy has now been remembered in Devon Double, the latest episode of the BT Rugby Stories podcast series. It’s a story that had humble beginnings, Baxter recounting growing up with the-then County Ground-based amateur club being very much a part of his life as a ball boy and scoreboard operator before he started playing for their colts team and then going on into the first team.

It was 2009 when the now 51-year-old stepped into the coaching hot seat, securing promotion to the Premiership the following year and winning a first top-flight title in 2017. However, successive Twickenham final defeats in the following two seasons rankled when it emerged what Saracens had been doing off the field with their salary cap.

Never one to hold back his words, Exeter boss Baxter told the podcast: “What is the reason for having a salary cap if the whole point of it is not that everybody should be working within it and trying to work within it and expecting everybody else to work within it?

“If all 12 clubs, whenever they are looking at the salary cap, all they are trying to do is hire lawyers to read every minutia of it to try and find ways to make payments outside it, then why do we even have one?

“That anger that we hadn’t done better, probably feeling a bit hard done by as the story unfolded from the Saracens salary cap stuff, and all of those things, if you can angle them the right way and use in the right way they are all very powerful emotions and the lads harnessed those really, really well.”

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Jack Nowell, the currently out of favour England winger, explained that winning trophies was the sole Exeter focus during that 2019/20 campaign. “Our goals for that season were to win everything. The year before we had lost to Sarries again and it was tough to take.

“But where we were as a team we felt like we should be winning these games and that was our sole focus – to win these games and to get out of Europe, to get that monkey off our back of just being a group stage team. We wanted to be a team in these finals. Our ambition was there and as a team, we felt that we could really do it.”

Baxter described the helter-skelter resumption of the season, which featured regular midweek league games, as being like going on a Lions tour, a scenario that played out in favour of Exeter. “It was ‘get back into it for eight, nine Premiership games squeezed into just a few weeks plus quarter-final, semi-final, final’, so everything was there for a group that just wanted to put their foot down and enjoy almost like being on tour.

“That is very much how we talked to players about it, this would almost be like going on an old-school Lions tour where you have got 15, 16 games and you are just going to be going for it and that is your season done. Some of our players thought they were in heaven. They never really had to train, they just played games of rugby.

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“We had a strong rotation, had a couple of fantastic midweek results that I think buoyed us as much as they dented a few other teams. Then we found ourselves in really good shape physically and mentally.”

  • For the full Exeter episode, check out BT Sport’s podcast series, Rugby Stories, part of the BT Sport Pods lineup of podcasts. Every Monday, Rugby Stories, presented by Craig Doyle, will spotlight and celebrate English club rugby history. Btsport.com/pods

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