Baxter praises character of his team
By Mark Stevens
Rob Baxter praised his Exeter side’s character after the Chiefs overcame a string of obstacles and a flying start from Glasgow Warriors to seal a place in the last eight of the Heineken Champions Cup.
The Gallagher Premiership leaders arrived at Scotstoun knowing they needed just a solitary point to seal top spot in Pool 2 and advance into the quarter-finals for only the second time in the club’s history.
They headed home having accrued not just one, but three points, following an entertaining 31-31 draw with their Scottish hosts, who had stormed into a 14-3 lead inside eight minutes following early tries from Tommy Seymour and Huw Jones.
Ahead of kick-off, Baxter’s side had to deal with injury and illness within the squad, then they were force to reroute their bus ride to the stadium after they were caught up by an estimate 80,000-strong Scottish independence crowd who were marching through the streets of Glasgow.
They did, however, recover from their sluggish start and hit back to score three tries of their own through Nic White, Matt Kvesic and Jacques Vermeulen, before a score on the stroke of half time from home scrum-half George Horne ensured the game was deadlocked at 24-24 at the turn.
Kvesic grabbed his second of the game to put the Chiefs ahead again, before the Warriors hit back once more with a converted try from former Exeter player Niko Matawalu.
Even then, both sides had chances to secure victory, the best of which came with the last kick of the game when Stuart Hogg, on his first return to Glasgow since moving to the Chiefs last summer, thundered a 60-metre penalty kick onto the crossbar.
Post-game, Baxter was quick to salute his troops following a hard battle in their penultimate Pool Two fixture.
“I said before the game it was going to be a test of character for us,” he said. “Not a lot has gone right for us this week in terms of injuries and illness, then we got disrupted in our travel.
“There was a march on in the city centre and our hotel was in the city centre. We turned one way and turned another and roads were being shut. We ended up skirting our way round. We even ended up in a couple of housing estates and wondered whether we were ever going to get out!
“The lads, though, have just got on with it and showed great character and it feels like we have got a winning draw because it has achieved everything we wanted to achieve.”
With key locks Jonny Hill and Dave Dennis ruled out during the week, Sam Simmonds deemed unavailable due to the artificial surface, then Don Armand falling ill overnight, Baxter admitted it was hardly ideal prep for the Chiefs.
“It’s been a tough week,” continued Baxter. “Each day we were seeing a different forward coming in and calling line-outs. Sean Lonsdale had to do it today and that’s the first senior game where he’s filled that role, yet he came through very well and he held it together. It was the same for Marcus Street, coming on in a pressure scenario, but again he’s done very well.
“Losing the likes of Jonny Hill, Dave Dave, Sam Simmonds, then Don Armand overnight, they are big characters and big boots to fill, yet the guys have all stepped up and I can’t give them enough credit for that.
“It wasn’t perfect - and it was frustrating at times - but what I like about us at the moment is that we are really going after teams and staying on the front foot. So often when you watch Heineken Cup games you see the momentum of the game switch back and forth, it’s so different to the Premiership, yet we are learning all the time to just get on with things. Now we are doing that, I think we look a very good side.”
The Chiefs will wrap up their Pool Two programme this Saturday when La Rochelle visit Sandy Park. Victory over the Frenchmen will ensure Baxter’s side of home advantage in the last eight, but he has offered a note of caution ahead of kick-off.
“To get that home draw, everything is still in our hands,” added Baxter. “We’ve done what we needed to do today, but now we have to go and finish the job next week. La Rochelle, we know, will be tough. Any French side with nothing to lose is danger, danger, danger!
“They will be coming over next week with no pressure on them at all, so that will make me worry a bit this week. Instead, what we have to do is lock ourselves down, make no mistakes, and get ourselves in the right mindset to go out and win.”
Glasgow, who visit Sale Sharks in their final game, are not mathematically out of the running for a place in the last eight, but head coach Dave Rennie did admit "it's unlikely now". He said: "We'd need a couple of results to go our way. Gloucester play Toulouse away so there might be a bit of hope there. We'll reassess and go down to Sale and throw everything at it.
"We played a lot of good footy and it highlights what we're capable of. We let in a couple of soft tries and if they pin you under the posts they're going to keep asking questions, you've got to give them credit."