In Exeter boss Baxter, England have perfect Jones successor

When the RFU eventually begins their search to find a replacement for Eddie Jones, there is no need for them to scour the globe.

In Exeter boss Baxter, England have perfect Jones successor

By Simon Collings

When the RFU eventually begins their search to find a replacement for Eddie Jones, there is no need for them to scour the globe.

The replacement they should be looking to hire is a lot closer to home. In fact, he is quietly going about his business in the south west of England, building up a body of work that can no longer be ignored.

Exeter Chiefs’ director of rugby, Rob Baxter, has had dealings with England in the past. In 2013, he joined Stuart Lancaster’s coaching team for the summer tour of Argentina. England won both Tests and Baxter’s input was well received by the players.

Two years later, when Eddie Jones was appointed the new head coach following Lancaster’s departure, Baxter was reportedly one of those the Australian wanted to join his backroom staff.

Baxter declined the offer. It was claimed he was not eager to be the No 2 after six years of running the show and also, in his eyes, there was still plenty to achieve at Exeter. He was dead right.

Since 2015, Baxter’s stock has continued to rise and he is now the outstanding candidate to replace Jones. That, if everything goes according to the RFU’s plan, will be in 2021.

It is impossible not to be drawn in by Baxter’s character. The 47-year-old is as honest as they come, to the point and direct, but in a manner that is insightful too.

There are no airs and graces when it comes to the Chiefs’ director of rugby, no bluster. His work-ethic reflects that, as does his beliefs in his ideas.

“People still talk about ‘do I wake up like I am in dream?’” said Baxter after Exeter won the 2017 Premiership final.

“I have never once had a feeling it is a dream because the people who live and breathe it every day know how hard we have worked.”

Winning the Premiership with Exeter in 2017 was an incredible achievement given that only seven years earlier they had won promotion. For many, such a feat would be enough.

Not for Baxter, who keeps his feet on the ground. Celebrations on the team bus home involved cider and pasties, before he turned his attention to next season. Players were called and emailed in the following weeks to warn them to get ready too.

The team assembled, and the style they play, is perhaps the greatest testament to Baxter’s work.

The forward pack is strong and resolute, working tirelessly at the scrum and breakdown. The backs behind them are slick and sharp, containing the killer instinct needed to take games away from teams. Six games into this Premiership season, they’ve already scored 29 tries.

It is a deep and competitive squad that Baxter has created, too. There is a mix of academy graduates, such as Jack Nowell, and players who have been given another chance to prove their talent.

“We’re just a bunch of misfits that enjoy each other’s company,” said Thomas Waldrom, ahead of his final home game for Exeter in 2018.

And they do really like each other’s company – and cake. During his time at Sandy Park, Waldrom was one of the drivers behind ‘Cookie Club’ – a regular afternoon tea meet-up between the players where one member either bakes or buys a sweet treat for all to eat.

Given Waldrom revealed Baxter buying him a muffin at a service station helped persuade him to join in 2014, his involvement should perhaps come as no surprise.

However, what did come as a shock was the then 30-year-old’s form when he moved to the Chiefs from Leicester Tigers. Rejuvenated by Baxter, he was the Premiership’s top try-scorer in 2015 and 2016.

Others have reaped similar benefits. Wing Olly Woodburn was struggling for action at Bath but has shone in the south west, while the likes of Don Armand and Harry Williams have come from nowhere to be capped by England.

Baxter has got the most from his squad on an incredibly tight budget. In fact, they were one of just two Premiership clubs to make a profit during the 2016/17 season.

He has been linked with England since Jones took charge in 2015. Indeed, the following year he hinted the Australian’s successor should be from England.

It was around then too that second-row Dean Mumm, another player Baxter had got the most out of in the twilight of his career, backed him for the job one day.

“I would definitely endorse Rob for the England role,” said Mumm. “The way Exeter have risen in the last few years is a great showcase for what he can do.”

Baxter may well be the leading candidate, but hiring him could prove difficult because Exeter is in his blood.

He started heading to the ground as a five-year-old to work as a ball boy. Manning the scoreboard followed and then mowing the grass. Fourteen years as a player there, 10 as captain, only added to that bond, which will be hard to break.

Baxter’s recent comments this year also hint he could be hard to lure away.

“Am I plotting and planning towards it? Not really,” he told the Daily Telegraph in January. “I’d want to be able to do it with absolutely no fear,” he explained to the Daily Mail in May.

Another issue is the RFU’s succession plan. The board wants to appoint a new head coach by the end of the 2019/20 season. This new figure will work with Jones until the summer of 2021, before leading England into the Rugby World Cup in France in 2023.

It is difficult to imagine Baxter agreeing to such a scenario. He is his own man, an independent thinker.

A year spent shadowing Jones seems unlikely, nor does it seem really necessary for someone who has already shown he’s more than up to the task.

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