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'That is what the strictly policed salary should create'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

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Exeter and Sale both sounded at peace this week that are unlikely to make the Gallagher Premiership semi-finals this season eleven months after they clashed in the knockout stages at Sandy Park. Of the four 2021 semi-finalists, only defending champions Harlequins are currently on track to make this year’s playoffs – a situation that positively highlights the top-flight’s increasing level of competitiveness.  

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Having overcome a recent era of struggle near the bottom, Leicester now lead the way at the top and promoted Saracens are in second. Quins are next and then Northampton currently occupy the fourth and final qualifying spot. 

Just eight points separate the fourth-place Saints from the ninth-place Wasps heading into the final two rounds of a regular season that has seen Bristol, last year’s table toppers, tailed away in tenth place after they made a poor start to the campaign. 

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Exeter and Sale also suffered in the early months of the Premiership season and while they enjoyed some better form in 2022, they are respectively in sixth and seventh places and are set to miss out on the playoffs. The Chiefs are at Bristol on Friday night and asked for his thoughts on the changing of the guard at the top, Baxter said: “From an outsider’s perspective, the quality of the competition is what you want. 

“That is also what the strictly policed salary should create. These things should happen. It should be harder to be there or thereabouts over and over again. But at the same time, we’re frustrated and disappointed that we’re not there. There are different reasons why Saracens weren’t there last year. 

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“I genuinely don’t think we are that far off. We just slipped some really important points at bad times in the year for us and really it’s been in the first half of the season. The points we normally collect in the second half of the season have been fine but we just slipped some games we really needed to knock over in the first part of the season and ultimately that has created this scenario as we get to the tail end.”

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Unlike the Premiership, where the end-of-season playoffs will accommodate just four of the 13 teams in the division, the Top 14 in France has a playoff system that caters for its top six finishing clubs while the newly formatted URC will stage quarter-finals next month that will feature its top eight clubs. 

Would an extended playoff system in England be something of interest to Sale boss Alex Sanderson or are Premiership officials right to limit the playoff to just four teams and offset the chance of a club like the Sharks, who are currently seventh, going to the second-place Saracens in a quarter-final and ambushing them in a one-off playoff?  

“It would detract from the consistency over the course of the season (of the higher placed teams), which we haven’t had,” said Sanderson, who has signed Jonny Hill for next season with the reduced Premiership salary cap now biting at Exeter.  

“I’m quite happy to accept the fact that we have only got a slim outside chance of making the playoffs because we weren’t consistently good at the start. We weren’t good enough and that is where you learn. To come pretty good at the end you kind of get away with that as a major learn for a club, as a coach.” 

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