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Welsh rugby enveloped in its latest existential crisis

As Wayne Pivac teeters on the edge of finding new gainful employment after a series of disappointing results, the wider-lens story tells of dysfunction and frustration

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'On match days, Rob necessarily won't be with the team'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Ryan Hiscott/Getty Images)

Exeter head coach Ali Hepher has explained that long-serving director of rugby Rob Baxter will have a less hands-on role with the Chiefs in 2022/23, even travelling separately from the team to matches. The reshuffle marks quite a change in the Sandy Park set-up. Ever since taking charge in May 2009, Baxter has been the recognisable face of the Exeter transformation from Championship nobodies to 2020’s Gallagher Premiership and Heineken Champions Cup double champions.

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However, the 51-year-old Baxter has now decided to take a step back into the shadows and to Hepher and his assistants to take more command of the business of Exeter getting results on a weekend. Last term represented something of a fall from grace for the Chiefs given their extraordinarily high standards of recent years. They failed to reach the Premiership playoffs for the first time since 2015 while they were also ousted in Europe at the round of 16 stage.

It was the type of average campaign that Baxter claimed numerous English rivals would be satisfied with but not Exeter, whose rethink began with the late April exit of defence coach Julian Salvi.

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Omar Mouneimne has since been recruited from Bristol and Baxter has now allowed his Exeter staff the additional wriggle room to call more of the shots. “On match days, Rob necessarily won’t be with the team so I’ll be leading that side of things,” explained Hepher. “He will be travelling separately.

“He will be at all the games, he will be very much involved with everything we do but he won’t be travelling with the team so pre-match, matchday post-match I will be dealing with it… I think he will still do the media side of stuff through the week but on match days, it will be down to myself and the other coaches. Yeah, a bit of a change in the role but something exciting to get on with.”

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Tell us more. “We still sit across the desk and we are talking through everything. He is very aware of everything that is going on all the time. It’s a very simple relationship in the sense that we both work incredibly hard, we are both comfortable sharing our opinions and we will work through the best way to solve problems and get to the solution that we want. That very much hasn’t changed.

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“Rob Hunter is in that mix as well and Omar coming in has been brilliant and added some coaching quality there. As a coaching group, we have got Ricki (Pellow), Gareth (Steenson), Haydn Thomas and Gareth Elliott all chipping in. We are a strong coaching group and we all have our opinions and we all very much listen to everyone. The main decisions still land with Rob but on match day, the main decisions within the game will probably land at my door.”

What has been the impact so far in the build-up to Saturday’s Premiership opener at home to Leicester? “We certainly know with bringing Omar in it brings a different eye to things and you can benefit from that, but we have all been pretty successful at the things we have done and also we are not just a stagnant coaching team, we are always looking to improve and improve our game.

“Our game has moved on all the way through, it doesn’t need a coaching change to change a game and move things on that front. But having a different eye on it and a different opinion when we talk through certain situations brings in different energy to the group and it has certainly been beneficial.

“We were pleased with how we coached this pre-season. We worked really well and had a really good pre-season compared to previous years. The guys are in a much better mind space as a result of that, but we have got to see where we are at and we get the first test this weekend.”

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Having had the chance to conduct a lengthy post-mortem, what were the takeaways for Hepher from a rare Baxter campaign where Exeter didn’t convince that they were genuine trophy contenders at any stage? “Last season we had incredible injuries. Against Wasps, our bench covering the back row was a hooker and a prop.

“The injury list was phenomenal. I don’t think I have ever been involved in a squad that has been that close to the line. I know others have been involved in that situation – it isn’t unique to us. And look, probably at the beginning of last season when we were all trying to push for that top two we were fielding 18-, 19-year-olds on the field in the pack. That became a tough situation.

“We lost games on the back of that, fielding new guys, and sometimes those guys need to go through that experience and come out the other side and they have done already. They are much further on than the bunch of guys that played a lot of games at the start of last season. They have had a full season under their belt in various different capacities.

“Look, we are in a better place on that front and the challenge is on the mindset side of it as well. When you have achieved a double, as those (older) guys did, they might have aspired to win a Champions Cup but they probably never thought of winning a double and they managed to nail it down.

“That creates a ‘Where do you go from there?’ in some people’s minds. Some players were let’s go straight back and do it and they were on it and then that is easy but others had fought really hard to get to that level and then it becomes tough to get back to that because they know the hard work that went into it.

“It’s then the challenge of resetting and making sure that their mindsets are right on top of what we want to do. On the coaching side of things, we have changed things slightly and it hopefully puts us in better stead, and also within ourselves we have very much looked at how we operate the attack side of things.

“It was the perfect time to make a change because we had a little longer pre-season than we have done in the past. The consecutive years of short pre-seasons going into new seasons eventually do take a bit of a knock and it all adds up. We have always been a tight squad and players are encouraged to be best mates but that takes time with each other and on the back of covid, you had to stop a lot of that spending good time with each other.

“We have been able to reset that a bit this summer, so we have spent a lot of time with each other and have bonded a lot better. The boys have enjoyed the pre-season. I’m pretty sure it’s a much happier camp because we have been able to do that side of things as well as work incredibly hard.

“We put them through some hard stuff and they have responded incredibly well. There are lots of little bits there that we have worked on and, as a package, we are in a better place overall.”

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