Baxter has Leinster homework done as Exeter prepare to put Champions Cup title on the line

THERE’S NO SHORTAGE of compliments being passed between Leinster and Exeter this week.

On Monday, the Leinster camp admitted to being keen students of how Exeter play the game, putting them in the same category as that serial winning Saracens team or French entertainers Toulouse. 

The feeling is mutual, although this is a meeting of two clubs at very different stages of their story.

Exeter currently hold the prize Leinster have been so desperate to capture since losing the 2019 Champions Cup final to Saracens, but the Devon outfit are new arrivals to the top tier of European rugby, the capture of that first title last October closing the book on a remarkable decade for the club.

The Chiefs only broke into the Premiership in 2010. By that stage, Leinster had the first of their four Champions Cup titles in the bag and were in the midst of their first golden era of the decade.

Back then, teams like Leinster were what Exeter dreamed of one day becoming.

“I don’t mind telling you that over an extended period I’ve spent quite a lot of time looking at Leinster, particularly as we’ve tried to develop parts of our game,” says Exeter director of rugby Rob Baxter.

“I’m not the defence coach here anymore, or the forwards coach, but I was for quite a long time. Particularly when I was looking at things around our set-piece and initially when we were starting to make some defensive shifts, I spent a fair bit of time looking at Leinster then, which was a few seasons ago.”

Exeter tend to focus their attention more towards general trends within the game now, as opposed to studiously examining individual teams, but Baxter adds that he isn’t surprised his team feature prominently in the video room at Leinster HQ.

The best teams always keep a close eye on the competition.

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“I think Leinster have probably become a little similar to us,” he continues.

Exeter beat Racing in last year’s final to win their first Champions Cup. Source: Andrew Fosker/INPHO

“What happens when you’re a club that wants to climb the ladder a bit, is the teams you look at the most are the teams that are winning. When we were trying to be more successful in the Premiership I obviously took a lot more time looking at what Leicester and Northampton and Wasps were doing, when we were kind of a bottom third team in the Premiership, and then Saracens a little bit later.

“Then when we were looking for a bit more success in Europe, that’s when our focus shifted a little bit more to look at Leinster and Munster and some of the French sides.

“In equal measure, as you climb the pathway, the teams you look at are the ones who are more successful. It doesn’t surprise me that they look at Exeter because for obvious reasons, that’s what we were doing five or six years ago, looking at the Leinsters and Saracens, Munster etc.

“I think it goes with the territory if I’m honest with you. I think coaching is one of those professions where we all encourage each other to steal each other’s ideas because that happens pretty much on a weekly basis, doesn’t it?

“You see one club doing something and then you see everyone else doing it. It’s kind of what happens, isn’t it? It’s just everybody developing that hybrid game to get it to suit you the best.” 

One element of the Exeter gameplan which Leinster have brushed up on this week is their success rate when they get that five-meter line within their sights. Few teams are as potent from close range, with that explosive pick-and-go ability serving as the platform for four of their seven tries against Lyon last weekend.

“I particularly remember Northampton here a few weeks ago, we lost by a point and we had about 25 goes at it and got over once,” Baxter says.

Exeter put seven tries on Lyon last weekend. Source: PA

“It was (effective against Lyon), but I think a lot of other clubs are adapting to it now. I think it is something more teams are adapting to and looking at because of the high percentage success rate of it.

“For us, it’s a combination of things (which make it so successful). We’ve been doing it a bit longer, because we’ve been doing it longer we’ve probably seen the things we’ve got wrong more than other teams have which obviously means you can analyse it and work out what you did wrong and the things that are successful, and they can all add to your plan around your five-meter attack game and everyone’s roles in it.

“Those lads have practiced it numerous times, their game-intelligence around how to do it, where the space might be and how you might challenge the opposition – they’ve probably had more practice, more reviews, more talks about it.

“It’s probably a time and understanding issue more than anything else that allows us to  be successful at it. That’s it. Other teams who have different ways of attacking are slightly better at their attack because it’s more in them, it’s more often trained and played and there’s an understanding and a belief.

“The things you are saying add to the belief in it and belief is huge in sport. If you believe you’re going to get over the try-line, that makes a big difference as well. All of those combination of things has added up over the seasons.”

Both Leinster and Exeter pride themselves on the power of their collective, but Baxter – who also outlined that the Chiefs have plans for a home pre-season game against Munster in the summer – says it the actions of the individuals on show will ultimately determine the outcome this weekend.

“‘Do I clear this?’, ‘Do I carry this?’ ‘How do I present this?’, ‘Which pass do I make?’… They’ll be right in the thick of it and a lot of that will come down to individual people making some split-second decisions and doing it with an energy that might gain you that extra half-foot, that extra bit of momentum that ultimately leads to success further down the line, two or three phases later, whatever it might be.

“So that’s why from a coaching perspective, our job is to keep nudging the players back on line to make sure that their actions and their energy is directed in the right way for the 15 guys to produce the biggest performance they can. I think that’s the key. If we can do that a little bit better than Leinster it gives us a chance. 

“If Leinster play a little bit more like Leinster than we play like Exeter, that gives Leinster the benefit.”