With Liverpool, the dominant force in English football, romping home to the Premier League title on Thursday evening, Exeter Chiefs’ director of rugby Rob Baxter isn’t expecting similar to happen when elite oval-ball competition resumes in August, writes Gareth Davies.
Although any restart for Premiership rugby is not set in stone, when it does roll back into action again, after being halted by the coronavirus pandemic in March, Exeter will start top of the tree and odds-on favourites to claim a second top-flight crown.
With this in mind, it’s easy to see why comparisons have been drawn between what Liverpool emulated and what Exeter may do, but there is no doubting the fact that like Jurgen Klopp’s men, Baxter’s troops are the stand-out side in their domestic competition.
However, the Sandy Park supremo, speaking at a virtual press conference, attended by The Indy on Friday, feels that Exeter’s task of becoming top dogs won’t be a straightforward affair like Liverpool’s.
“I’m confident we will return and be a good side. The huge difference for Liverpool was that they could come back, be a bit shaky and still win as it was a different scenario.
“For us, regardless of whether we come back shaky and still have to get the points to be in the top four, we would then have to win a semi-final and a final – two huge games. Liverpool never came back having to win a couple of big games, it was about collecting enough points and it always looked like it (winning the Premier League) was going to happen anyway.
“It is a slightly different scenario and for us, it is almost about getting excited for a new season. For some sides around the top four now, they are going to see this as a massive opportunity to do something different.
“They have got to a certain stage in the season and they can go bang, here we go for nine weeks and let’s see where we end up. For me it’s a totally different situation to that seen in football.”
Baxter also feels that the Premiership, with some sides making wholesale changes to personnel both and off the pitch during the lockdown period, will be a totally different beast when it returns.
“The Premiership will be exciting and almost take on a new format,” he enthused. “It will be like a new tournament because obviously, the points collected so far will give some teams a little bit of an advantage, but it will also create opportunities for the sides that didn’t think their opportunity would be there.
“The Premiership season is a bigger part of a wearing down process. Every game 80 minutes has a wearing down process within it and you have to drive the intensity to get your benefits at some stage during the game.
“The season is a bit like that too because if you can drive your intensity levels over the course of a season, you can hurt other teams get them flagging and they will then worry about their league position. So many of those things have gone because there is no relegation issue.
“Some teams will have absolutely nothing to lose and they will use these next nine games as the start of their next season. If you were a team around the bottom four or five, you may think there isn’t much to play for, but there is an awful lot to play for.”
In the hours before Baxter sat down and conducted his first post-shutdown media briefing, it had been announced that Northampton Saints had formed as strategic partnership with struggling Championship side Bedford Blues.
Rugby, like every other walk of life, has been badly hit financially by the pandemic and this new alliance is surely not the last of its kind.
When Baxter was asked if he advocated such an arrangement the 49-year-old professed to having such links with local clubs further down the pecking order already.
He added: “We’ve got pretty strong links with Cornish Pirates, pretty strong links with Plymouth, pretty strong links at other clubs.
“We’ve actually got coaches, either ex-Exeter Chiefs coaches, or players that have played for Exeter, guys that have been involved our academy, at all these places so we believe our links are very strong.
“Damian Welch is the coach at Plymouth Albion now and he played for Exeter for years.
“People will remember him galloping home for tries in the Premiership that no other second-row could score.
“At Cornish Pirates, we’ve got Alan Paver who played in a Premiership game as a guest when we needed him. Even I’ve played against Alan so we’re not far off being embedded there. Gavin Cattle has also worked in our academy over the years so we feel we are close anywhere.
“We don’t need to formulise any links with those clubs, but do I think it’s a good idea down the line, with the way rugby is going and lack of money in the sport at the moment, Premiership clubs will have to look around their local rugby community and see where they can help out.”