Rob Baxter believes Stuart Hogg could be the missing link in Exeter Chiefs’ quest to break new ground in the European Champions Cup.
Despite competing in the past four Premiership finals, winning the title 2017, Exeter have only once qualified from their pool and never gone beyond the quarter-finals.
Scotland full-back Hogg was forced off with concussion after just 17 minutes of the Pool 2 leaders’ win over Sale Sharks, but not before he had created one try and scored another, made two clean breaks, ran over 60m and beaten six defenders.
A blockbuster summer signing from Glasgow Warriors, the like of which Exeter seldom make, Baxter feels the 27-year-old can be the difference between unprecedented European success and another campaign that fails to match their domestic prowess.
“I would like to think he would be,” the director of rugby said. “He is part of it. Good players influence other players as well, so it’s not only what he is bringing individually, but the influence he has on other people.
“That element of talk and experience and seeing things is very important. Hoggy will say himself, he is covering a lot of metres with us, probably more than in the past, but we tend to have high ball-in-play time which means the full-back is moving a lot – anticipating where it’s going to be, where the next kick might come from.
“And I think he is actually developing as a player. I don’t think he’s someone we’ve got here and want to cling onto him in the model he is. He wants to push on and keep developing and we want him to push on and see as much of the ball as he can.”
Steve Diamond was fire in yesterday's post-match presser
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 9, 2019
In his first five matches, played largely in testing conditions, Hogg had yet to showcase the extent of his devastating attack game, but still gobbled up an immense number of metres with ball in hand and put in several beautiful touch-finders with the boot.
But at the AJ Bell Stadium, the Scot’s blistering break led to a penalty try, before he seized an opportunistic kick-and-chase score, during which he suffered a brain injury. Baxter is adamant that even in his short time in Devon, he has already noticed progress in much of Hogg’s game.
“There’s a period of the season where you have to be able to win games in poor conditions and in that circumstance you have to be able to do the basics very well,” he added.
“For a full-back, that is catching, kicking, defending, talking, organising the back-three. Stuart’s very good at that so we were very comfortable that we were slotting in someone in the correct way, someone that would be useful in the conditions now, but when conditions dry up, as you saw today, he can add something.
In only 17 minutes before concussion forced him off, Stuart Hogg created one try and scored another, ran 62m, made two clean breaks and beat six defenders. A red-hot display for an Exeter Chiefs team that look uncatchable in Pool 2. This is why Chiefs signed him. pic.twitter.com/b5b5uX6Qfj
— Jamie Lyall (@JLyall93) December 8, 2019
“You have to work very hard to get to semi-finals and finals but semi-finals and finals are played at the end of May and in June, and normally on a red-hot day, with a firm pitch. That is the time when you want someone to create something out of nothing and potentially win you a game and we feel that’s what Stuart can do.
“I’m seeing improvement in most areas of his game. Today in a lot of ways was his best attacking game. To do it in a Champions Cup game shows it is still there. He genuinely found space today and looked capable of breaking a team open and it wasn’t like we were putting him into space, which is good.
“That kind of physicality is developing, his movement around the backfield is fantastic for us and his kicking will still improve. We do a lot of kicking with our outside backs and that’s an area which, although it’s very good, will continue to improve for him.”
The 22-20 Salford triumph keeps Exeter unbeaten at the Pool 2 summit, six points clear of Hogg’s former side Glasgow and eight better off than Sale, who visit Sandy Park next weekend.
Although there are three fixtures remaining, and Chiefs have still to travel north to Scotstoun, the pool is firmly in their grasp, particularly given the spanking they visited upon the Warriors in round two. It may be early days, but this has the feel of a seismic year, a golden opportunity to go deeper into the Champions Cup than they have ever managed.
“Sometimes you wonder if it’s the tough moments you’ve been through in the past which create situations like today,” Baxter said. “I’d like to think that shows some of the tough qualities the lads have shown in campaigns before.”
All of this comes, rather oddly, after a middling start to the Premiership. Narrow wins over Harlequins and Worcester have been accompanied by defeat at struggling Bath and in a most un-Exeter-like performance, shipped a 17-0 lead at home to Bristol, losing 20-17. Baxter believes his players, desperate to crack Europe, were waiting for the competition to begin rather than emptying themselves domestically.
“Every one of you in this room who has interviewed me before has said, ‘Is it going to be your year in the Heineken Cup? When’s it going to be Exeter’s year to get out of the pool?’ And the players hear that as well and get asked those questions,” Baxter said.
“So in pre-season we did reviews with all of them and an awful lot of them said their goal this season was to go further in Europe. Now, if you set it as your goal and you see it just a couple of weeks away, which happened at the start of the season, then you do start looking forward to it and waiting for it. And I think that’s what happened a little bit.
“We got through the first few rounds of the Premiership playing ok, we never really took off. Sometimes a group of players almost talk themselves into what’s going to happen. We kind of talked ourselves into an ok performance against Bristol, which ended up not being good enough, but a very good performance the next week against La Rochelle, and that was purely a mental approach to what we were doing.”
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