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'That's what rugby should be about and I'm a big believer in that'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Henry Browne/Getty Images)

Rob Baxter has defended his decision to bring as strong an Exeter squad as possible to South Africa for this weekend’s Heineken Champions Cup game versus the Bulls rather than rest up his main players ahead of the following week’s round four January 21 match at home to Castres.

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The Chiefs are currently second to Leinster in Pool A having beaten Castres away and the Bulls in Devon and with eight teams qualifying for the round of 16 from that group, it would have been understandable if the Gallagher Premiership club opted to send an understrength squad to Pretoria.

After all, it won’t be until next Monday lunchtime that they arrive back at Sandy Park following their southern hemisphere trip, leaving them with a shorter than usual preparation window for the group-ending round four match against the visiting French.

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However, Baxter has always been of the belief that if a team isn’t dead in the Champions Cup it should be fighting as hard as possible to get a result and that has been his approach to this week with Exeter down in South Africa as they seek to become the first English club to win there following the December defeats for Harlequins at the Sharks and London Irish at the Stormers.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to bond as a group,” he claimed at his midweek media conference which was conducted via Zoom from the club’s Pretoria hotel across the road from the Loftus Versfeld stadium. “In a way, it is a shame that we can’t have some more players over here but it is a great opportunity for the guys that are here to do something a little bit different.

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“Senior players are very much leading the way, it’s a kind of mini-tour in some ways. We’re not trying to control every minute of every day for them. We have a training programme laid out, the players have laid down the rules as to what is acceptable at meetings, timings, kit to wear, this type of stuff.

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“The senior guys have taken it on board to make it a quite well-run, well-managed, feel-good vibe scenario and it’s a nice chance to train morning, having the middle of the day off and then training late afternoon. It fills the days nicely. We went out for a team meal away from the hotel on Tuesday and have some activities lined up on Thursday, so that is the kind of energy vibe we want to make around the place.

“Rugby-wise we are aware it is a big challenge, the Bulls are particularly good at home. We’re right here next to the ground so we can see what the stadium is like and we’re preparing with as much detail as we would any other game. We’re taking it very, very seriously. We brought our strongest available squad, we genuinely want to give it a go.

“I’m a believer that if a competition is not dead you fight flat out for it. That is what we are going to do and I’ve got a feeling that anything we can take from the game on Saturday will be a real positive for us and will help us down the line. The players all wanted to come on this trip and we brought them, that is what rugby should be about and I am a big believer in that.”

Temperatures will still be as high as 26°c by the time of Saturday’s 7:30pm local time kick-off and while Baxter has issues with the concept of having South African clubs participate in the Champions Cup, his attitude this week has been to just get on with things and embrace the Exeter trip.

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“One of the difficulties with the travelling is that you are locked into the arrangements. Because the organisers have to make bookings as soon as they know the rounds the fixtures can then change due to TV, so we flew quite late on Sunday and that allowed us to play across the whole weekend (in the Premiership) and then we will travel back late which would have allowed us to play the Bulls Sunday if we had to.

“We get back to Sandy Park lunchtime Monday which is not the greatest prep going onto a match against Castres next Saturday at home but outside of that it’s here now, we have just got to embrace it. You can continually find fault with it. I was asked at the beginning if it is something I agree with. No, because Heineken Champions Cup is such a brilliant competition as it is.

“Do I understand why the South African teams want to get involved in it? 100 per cent I can. It aligns with their TV, with their viewing, aligns with everything. It’s not that I don’t understand the reasoning, that South African or perhaps even the global perspective, but it might be a more pertinent question if you ask me on Saturday evening. I might have a different answer for you.”

Travel to South Africa has at times proven difficult for the European teams involved in the United Rugby Championship as the trips can involve a number of different flights and squads being split up into two or three separate travel groups. However, according to Baxter, this didn’t happen with Exeter as the Champions Cup is an EPCR-organised tournament.

“We flew to Johannesburg as one group. I can’t criticise the travel arrangements at all. We organised our own bus from Sandy Park to Heathrow, there were people there to meet us to make sure we all got ourselves through in the correct way, the flight was on time, the BA staff were brilliant and we were met here at Johannesburg with a bus waiting. The arrangements here on the ground, I can’t fault them. It’s very well organised.”

What about the tournament’s strange format, though? When Exeter won the cup in 2019/20, they had to win five of their six pool matches to clinch home advantage in the eight-team quarter-finals. Now there are fears that clubs with just one win in their four pool games could make this year’s round of 16 knockouts.

“It is what it is,” shrugged the Chiefs coach. “I still think what you will find is the way it works as you get into that home advantage etc, you will still tend to see the teams that seem to be on form through the competition come through at the end. I still think it will feel like that.

“It looked like that last year, it didn’t ever feel that there was someone in there who fluked their way through and it will be similar… overall it seems to fit in fairly well within the programme (of matches across a season) albeit the one thing it does feel like for me personally is the early rounds (in December) do feel like a rush after the autumn internationals. You feel like they come very quickly.”

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