Exeter Chiefs director of rugby Rob Baxter is gearing up to lose some more of his long-term stars due to limitations caused by the salary cap.
The exodus has already begun, with Luke Cowan-Dickie and Sam Simmonds set to move to Montpellier next season.
Meanwhile, loose forward Dave Ewers confirmed his move to Ulster this week in another departure. England star Jack Nowell is also expected to leave the club at the end of the season with his future up in the air.
“We’ve got some big challenges from the decision we made two or three years ago to keep the guys on full salary,” Baxter told BBC Sport.
“That was always going to cause us problems when they came off contract because they’re all contracted on salaries that were at the £6.4m cap.
“The reality is now when you come off contract it’s a £5m cap.”
The majority of Exeter’s historic side that won the Champions Cup and Premiership double in 2020 would have left by next season.
Baxter is still behind his decision to re-sign most of the group but now has to deal with the impacts of the salary cap.
However, the director of rugby feels the decision to keep the team together was the right one bearing in mind the success the club had.
“I spoke to the board three years ago when we re-signed the group pretty much en-masse for either two or three years, that it would be a real challenge for us to keep that quality of squad beyond the length of those contracts because of age, experience, what they’d achieved and the changing in the cap,” he added.
“It’s not something by doing that you couldn’t have known was coming, but we took that choice and kept that squad together and won a Heineken Cup.
“There was a choice to be made then, and we made that choice, and now we are now in the process of what we’re going through.
“But at this stage we’ve qualified for the last 16 of the Heineken Cup, we’re fifth in the Premiership, we’re going through a process, but the players are still buying in.”
Different stages of a career
Baxter believes most of the players leaving are at a stage in their career where they may be looking for new challenges.
“Most of these guys leaving have played international rugby here and have won trophies, and they’re either over 30 or getting to 30 and there’s the opportunity to try something else before their careers end,” Baxter said.
“Some of it’s linked to money, some of it’s linked to opportunity, some of it’s linked to new experiences.
“We’ve got a big group coming to that stage of their career, and I’ve said to every one of them individually I don’t hold any grudges, I don’t hold anything about it, I can understand where they are in their careers, that’s where it is.
“We haven’t tried to make it difficult for them, we haven’t tried to be awkward about it, because the hardest things I’ve had to do in my career is let players who wanted to stay, ask them to leave because we’ve moved on.
“People don’t see that side of it, they see these guys going and think it’s a one-way street.
“But when we let a player go who’s got older but has played 100s of games for us they say ‘well he’s older now and he’s dropped out of the first team, it’s the right thing to do’, when it’s a current player it feels weird.
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“But these guys have got their reasons, and they’re not wrong reasons, I’m not sitting here saying ‘this is feeling bad’ because of an internal issue, it doesn’t feel like that.
“We’ve got challenges, but we’re dealing with them, it’s not an issue some people would try and make it out to be.”