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Exeter Chiefs Rugby Club  

Date of release: 25/02/2002

Rob Baxter - A profile on 200 league appearances

As Rob Baxter, the Club Captain at Exeter Chiefs Rugby Club, becomes only the sixth player in the history of league rugby to play 200 times in the higher divisions, Neil Devons looks at the realities of combining a working life with the increasing pressures of top flight rugby.

National Division One rugby is tough and uncompromising and requires supreme levels of commitment and fitness. Nevertheless, Exeter Rugby Club is competing with the very best despite being a predominately semi-professional outfit with all but a handful of players holding down day-time jobs to supplement the kind of wages the prudent Chiefs’ financial managers are able to afford.

Rob Baxter, the long serving Chiefs’ Club captain is one player who has certainly got his hands full both on and off the field, combining working on the family farm with the very real rigours of training three nights a week, travelling to away matches, playing every weekend and making a number of mid week representative appearances, and then using every precious Sunday for essential rest and recovery.

A club like the Chiefs’ is always on the look out for sympathetic employers’ to take on new players and to find them jobs that will help them settle in the area. In the case of big Rob, they count themselves lucky that the Baxters’ farm is in Exwick, just a few miles from the County Ground, and that this burgeoning dynasty of farming rugby forwards not only has the self-employed’s discretion to find the time for rugby, but the tradition, the desire and the understanding of the demands the game relentlessly makes.

Yet it is Rob Baxter who thinks the luck has gone his way. “Before me, my father had a distinguished career at the County Ground representing the South West and having an England trial at lock forward. Now my younger brother Richard looks set for a long career having already gained an Under 21 cap, toured Argentina and passed the 100 league appearances at only 23 years-old.

“All three of us work the farm so we are able to juggle our responsibilities to meet the growing demands of rugby although we would have to consider rationalising the farming operation should the Chiefs win Premiership status and both Richard and I were fortunate enough to be offered full time contracts.”

Now in his seventh year as captain of the Chiefs, fortune also favoured the timing of his career, according to the six foot five inch lock forward: “I started playing at a young age following in the footsteps of my father and uncle and I was lucky enough to get enough league games to catch the eye of the England Colts selectors.

“The experience I gained at National level propelled me into the senior game although no one playing at that time would ever have imagined that Exeter would hit the heights that we are enjoying today.

“Being voted in as Captain, which was how the job used to be appointed, and then to keep it under the new, more professional regime, has been very important to me. The captaincy has made me a better player and improved my all round game. It comes with considerable responsibilities but has great rewards.

“We have a superb team spirit at the County Ground, and I see one of the Captain’s roles is to nurture that spirit. The whole squad enjoys spending time with each other and valuing the lighter moments of training. More than once have departing players telephoned me to say that the County Ground is a very hard place to leave.”

Warming to his subject, Rob Baxter reflected on the changes that his record-breaking career has seen.

“Levels of fitness have increased year on year although the core of players who have undergone the strict regime required often don’t notice the effects of the weights and conditioning training until we are joined by new players who haven’t yet reached the same standard.

“Fitness also helps protect rugby players from injury and has certainly contributed to the length and consistency of my playing career but it is mental toughness that is now a prerequisite for success and not just flair, pace and power. Only those that are mentally focussed, driven and tough will ultimately succeed at the very top.”

Rob Baxter’s distinguished career of over 200 league matches with a single club (over 300 including all appearances and cup matches), has latterly been recognised with a clutch of representative honours including several appearances for the legendary Barbarians and, along with younger brother Richard, caps for the English National Divisions against the touring Australian and South African national sides.

Last year was nevertheless a difficult one down on the farm, for while foot and mouth didn’t strike at the Baxters’ 300-acre spread, their herd of beef cattle and the rest of the livestock were subject to the same stringent restrictions as on every other farm in the County and the family to the same sort of unimaginable psychological stress the disease brought with it.

Mental toughness certainly has played a major role both on the farm and on the rugby pitch and under Rob’s “follow me chaps” style of leadership, the Chiefs finished last year in their highest ever league position and as the country’s leading semi-professional club.

Rob Baxter speaks with a controlled passion about the game he obviously lives for and does it with a combination of realism and modesty.

Success, he says, has come partly because he was in the right place at the right time. It has been maintained because of the organization and atmosphere at the County Ground. It has accelerated because of the uncompromising and inspired stewardship of Director of Rugby, Ian Bremner, and is supported by the most vociferous and loyal spectators in the league.

None of this, he would claim however, compares to the support of his family – and not just the understanding of his wife Jo and their children Jack aged five and two-year-old Annie, but from the dynasty started by Baxter Senior and his brother Paul and now extending to brother Richie and cousin Eddie, the latest to make his debut with the Chiefs’ second string.

Still only 30 years-old, there’s plenty of rugby left in Rob Baxter and his words will have many a league opponent shaking their heads with resignation:

“I am as fit and strong as ever I have been and I’m playing better than ever. Providing I escape injury, there’s another 100 league games left in me yet.”

Like a stick of rock, break a Baxter in half and you’ll read Exeter Rugby Club running right through them. Any bets on how many games, young Jack will play?
Contact details: Neil Devons: 01392 687477
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