Exeter v Newcastle: Why Chiefs' Baxter is up there with Fergie as England's greatest

Gareth Steenson
Memories . . . long serving Gareth Steenson holds the Premiership trophy last year
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Exeter Chiefs are the club that came from nowhere to win last year's Premiership Grand Final. Ralph Ellis pays homage to the man behind their story ahead of their playoff with Newcastle on Saturday...

"Exeter should justify a price of [1.17] in the Match Odds although it won’t be that easy against a Newcastle side who have been transformed by the work of their coach Dean Richards. I’d see a winning margin of considerably less than the 14.5 points suggested in the Handicap Market."

The greatest coach in English sport in the last 30 years? I guess Sir Alex Ferguson is out on his own in that contest, and we all wish him well as he continues to recover in hospital.

But if you want to start debating who might take second place then I'd suggest Rob Baxter, now with the title of Director of Rugby at Exeter Chiefs, is emerging as a very strong candidate.

I guess you could argue that Bournemouth's Eddie Howe has built a club from nothing in a similar way, taking the Cherries from the third tier to becoming an established Premier League side.

Unlike Baxter, however, he's yet to win a big trophy. And that for me puts the 47-year-old up there as an absolute coaching genius.

This is a man who joined Exeter as a player in 1987, then spent 10 years as captain of the club, before moving seamlessly to the coaching staff. Made head coach in 2009 he won promotion to the Premiership a year later.

Improved year-on-year

While since then virtually every other club that has won promotion into rugby's elite has dropped straight back down, Baxter has just improved the Chiefs year-on-year until last season they finally reached the pinnacle winning the Grand Final.

I'd backed them for that victory, although it was an epic encounter, won with a penalty three minutes from the end of extra time following a 20-20 draw.

Follow that? He has done, and after finishing top of the regular season table Chiefs begin this year's play-offs when they face Newcastle on Saturday with every chance of retaining their title.

They should justify a price of [1.17] in the Match Odds although it won't be that easy against a Newcastle side who have been transformed by the work of their coach Dean Richards. I'd see a winning margin of considerably less than the 14.5 points suggested in the Handicap Market.

But Exeter, on a nine-match winning streak, have proved they know how to finish on top in tight games. That run includes 20-18 at Bath, 20-17 at Newcastle and 31-30 against Northampton.

Strong youth structure

Baxter's great achievement has been to continually build not only the team but the club, developing the Academy structure to produce players while also working the sport's nascent transfer market brilliantly.

Of the 60-man first team squad operating at Sandy Park, some 24 have come through the youth system including England's Jack Nowell. Then there are the contingent of another eight or nine recruited from Championship clubs and given their break at the top level. It's a surprise that Eddie Jones hasn't included more than five of their players in his squad to tour South Africa.

He also has stalwarts like Gareth Steenson who has been with the club since 2008, and Phil Dollman who was his first signing after taking charge. Yet last summer after winning the Premiership for the first time, Baxter didn't stand still. Promoted from Head Coach to Director of Rugby, he made sure his three-man backroom team of Ali Hepher, Rob Hunter and Ricky Pellow also got new contracts, and signed five more players to increase competition in the squad.

Saracens are [1.91] favourites to regain the Premiership title as Grand Final winners at Twickenham on May 26 but after such a dominant season Chiefs look value at [2.38].

And just as any opposition manager would tell you that Sir Alex in the opposition dug-out was worth a goal start, so Baxter behind his laptop in the Twickenham technical box is equally inspiring.

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