By Mark Stevens
Rob Baxter insists there is a “burning desire” amongst the Exeter Chiefs coaching staff to take the Devon club onto even greater things in the future, after he and his three trusty lieutenants – Ali Hepher, Rob Hunter and Ricky Pellow – today all agreed new three-year deals with the Aviva Premiership champions.
Baxter will take on the new title of Director of Rugby for the 2017/18 season, while Hepher has been named the club’s new Head Coach. Both Hunter (Forwards Coach) and Pellow (Skills Coach) will continue in their current roles, both of which have seen them help take the Chiefs to a new level, both in English and European rugby.
The new deals for the quartet come just weeks after they helped oversee Exeter’s Twickenham triumph, where the Chiefs saw off rivals Wasps in extra time to lift English rugby’s top prize for the first time in the club’s history.
Former player and club captain Baxter took charge of the Chiefs ahead of the 2009/10 season – and immediately brought success to the club, working alongside both Hepher and Pellow, and steering the club to success in the inaugural RFU Championship Play-Off Final.
Since that memorial night at Bristol’s Memorial Stadium, the trio have been heavily involved in helping the Chiefs to forge themselves as genuine force within the English game. Hunter, meanwhile, joined the club in 2013 following a highly successful stint as England Under-20s head coach, working with the likes of Jack Nowell, Henry Slade, Sam Hill and Luke Cowan-Dickie.
Together the four coaches have not only raised standards amongst Exeter’s elite playing group, but they have forged a working partnership that has continued to thrive season upon season.
“One of the strengths of this coaching team is that we all offer something different to the mix,” said Baxter. “We all want to be successful and we all want to see the players do as well as they can. Where we are different is that we see other things differently at times and can challenge one another if necessary.
“Yes, we have got people who are experts in certain areas, but at the same time we are more than happy to have some pretty lively discussions about things. Anyone who sits near us in the grandstand will often hear them going on during a match-day!
“What I like, though, is that we can have disagreements or heated debates, but when it comes down to it, we all get over it pretty quickly and then get on with it. As a group, we all want the same things to happen, so we don’t have a lot of time for guys not seeing the bigger picture or trying to do to things their own way. Instead, we have a burning desire amongst us all to work hard and do the very best we can for one another and for the team.”
With the new deals in place, Baxter says it allows not only himself, but also his fellow coaches to concentrate their attentions on the future and, most importantly, the upcoming season where the Chiefs will be looking to defend their Premiership crown.
“In a lot of ways we all fill roles that probably don’t have specific boundaries,” added Baxter. “That will continue moving forward, but at the same time there will be new bits and pieces for all of us to oversee. Obviously I’ve had large responsibilities for things like squad recruitment and running budgets, so a large part of what I do day to day won’t change that much.
“What I will say, however, is that I think it’s fantastic recognition for Ali. He has worked extremely hard for an awful long time and in many ways has been in what a lot of people would call the head coach role for numerous years. When you look at the type of rugby we want to play and the intricacies of our game plans over the years, I think a lot of that is down to his organisation and his coaching.
“Everyone will be aware since Rob’s arrival, the club have been on the up and up and bringing in that additional member of the team, whose focus has been on the forwards, has been a huge positive for us. What people probably don’t realise is that Rob’s role is not just on things like scrums and line-outs, he has a focus way beyond that.
“A lot of that comes within things like how we link in our attacking game and the contact area. He also has a big responsibility of how he wants our forwards to play and how they need to react in all aspects of their game.
“As for Ricky, he’s been here probably as long as I have in various capacities. He’s been heavily involved in the work of the academy and the first team, while his energy and enthusiasm is boundless.
“He works with every player that comes into the club – and that includes all the academy youngsters – and he’s been fundamental in the development of a lot of players like Jack Nowell, who he’s brought through from a young teenager at Truro College to that of a British & Irish Lion.
“As I said, we have a great group of coaches, all of whom want to do well and get even better. We’re no different to players when it comes to being ambitious and being success. We want to have further achievements in the Premiership and we want to do a bit better than we have in Europe. Having that desire and that ambition is what drives you forward and I would like to think all of the ambitions we have can be met here at Exeter at least over the duration of this next contract.”