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Rob Baxter breaks silence on the Exeter 'asset sale' statement

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

Exeter director of rugby Rob Baxter has explained the reason why the Chiefs felt compelled to issue a statement that its members will be asked later this month to vote on the proposed sale of an unspecified asset to pay off debts accumulated during the pandemic.

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It was November 4 when the Gallagher Premiership club issued a 130-word statement revealing that an EGM will be held on November 30 in order to secure permission for an asset sale to repay the borrowing of “substantial government-backed loans to pay our players and staff” that took place when rugby restarted behind closed doors.

“The funding from the government was not in the form of grants, but loans which carry interest,” read the statement. “These are due to be repaid and the income from our normal trading is not sufficient to pay them and all other expenses.

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“Accordingly, the rugby club board decided to sell one of our non-rugby assets for which members’ approval is needed… This should be more than sufficient to see the club pay the loans and be financially secure for the future.”

The statement ended by stating that no further comment would be made by the rugby club but DoR Baxter tackled the issue at his Wednesday morning media briefing ahead of this Saturday’s Exeter home game versus London Irish.

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Baxter insisted there were no fears that Exeter could go the way of Wasps and Worcester and fall into administration, adding that he addressed the matter with his squad’s players on Monday and there were no concerns from them. “At this stage, we are not making any more comments on what assets are being sold. That is something I can’t answer until further down the line,” he began.

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“I wouldn’t say it is anything more than us being upfront about the members are going to be asked to take a certain stance on certain things and we just wanted to be upfront. What we didn’t want was for it to leak through social media that something was happening and all of a sudden it becomes a more major story with us having no control over the discussions of it.

“Basically at the end of the day, it’s a business decision for the members to agree with the board on, that’s the long and the short of it really. It’s just a decision really to keep the club moving forward.

“I’d be honest with you, if what happened with Wasps and Worcester hadn’t happened we probably wouldn’t have even made a comment because everyone wouldn’t have been searching for a story… it would have just been a decision that was made and would have come out afterwards. That’s what it is, just putting our ducks in order as regards the yes and no that has to happen for the directors to act in the way they see the business going forward.

“You are trying to find a story here that isn’t there. The story isn’t there that you are trying to find,” he added regarding the speculation since last Friday’s statement that Exeter might possibly be in financial peril similar to what has happened elsewhere in this season’s Premiership. “The level of debt etc is completely incomparable so you need to be careful not to find a story that is just not comparable. They are not comparable, that is the answer I can give you.”

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What, according to Baxter, has been the reaction on the ground at Exeter since last Friday’s asset sale statement? “To be honest with you very little. I said to the players on Monday, just to fill you in on everything that happened on Friday, those of you that have seen it or discussed it, I just sat in the players’ changing room with them and we had a very casual kind of meeting.

“I just said, ‘Any questions about it guys?’ Anyone who did have questions I answered them just like I have answered you (media) guys around the reasoning behind it… It hasn’t been a big deal around the club or with the players.”

Back to the issue of controlling the narrative about the asset sale. “The reality is it wouldn’t have come out before the members’ meeting in different circumstances in another year. If we had just been talking about moving assets around or selling a piece of this to pay for x, y, z, it wouldn’t have come out publicly in a public statement.

“It [the reason for the statement] was probably a little if it came out in dribs and drabs as members were getting the papers and being informed about the meeting that it would have been seen completely differently, which I completely understand.

“The state of the game at the moment around the Premiership there is a lot of things being talked about where the game might be going, a lot of talk about the level of debt, etc. We didn’t want social media to write the headlines when we could put a statement out. That is the only reason we did it.”

What would happen, though, if the Exeter members blocked the proposed asset sale? “Well, it affects it in that we have to make different decisions to go a different way. That is what it is all about. This is, in the board’s mind, the most sensible way forward. If they reject you have to try and find another way. That is why it is a business decision that has to be made.”

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