Baxter reacts to Final defeat
By Mark Stevens
Exeter Chiefs Director of Rugby Rob Baxter insists his young team will only get better, this despite suffering heartache for a third time to Saracens in the Gallagher Premiership Final at Twickenham.
In an absorbing clash between English Rugby’s two heavyweight clubs, it was the Londoners who prevailed in the end, running out 37-34 victors to add the Premiership title to that of the Heineken Champions Cup crown they collected last month.
Late tries from Liam Williams, Sean Maitland and Jamie George helped Mark McCall’s side to overturn Exeter’s 27-16 lead going into the final quarter.
The Chiefs, however, can be rightly proud of their seasonal efforts. Not only did they push Sarries right to the wire in this encounter, but for a second successive season they underlined their worth by finishing the regular league season eight points clear of their final opponents.
“It was a heck of a game,” said Baxter. “We showed we have moved forward from last year and the choice now is to say that this breaks us or we keep driving forward and use this pain in pre-season. Today we went toe-to-toe with the European champions for 80 minutes. We are a young side and I see improvement every day. The players can be proud of how close they came to beating Saracens.”
Having got off to a dream start, scoring the first of their five tries inside 27 seconds through Aussie scrum-half Nic White, the Chiefs continued to offer the greater threat for much of the contest.
Saracens, though, have not won four Premiership titles and three European Cups since 2011 for no reason, and having hung on bravely at times to quell the Chiefs threat, they somehow found another gear in the final quarter to pull them clear.
When asked if this Saracens team was the best English club side of all time, Baxter replied: “They probably are. Their record speaks for itself. They’re winning Premierships, they’re winning European Cups. That said, it feels to me like we’re disappointed that we haven’t beaten them, so that bodes well.
“What I have to do now is convince this group of players that if they keep working hard and moving in the right direction we should be challenging again next year. If you can take the European champions that close then there has to be more in Europe for us.”
Exeter’s misery deepened when full-back Jack Nowell, who was at his scintillating best all game, hobbled off with what appeared to be a serious injury to his left ankle sustained during a tackle by Alex Lozowski.
The Cornishman Nowell’s elusive running and ability to break tackles placed Saracens on the back foot time and again and England will be sweating on his fitness with the World Cup looming.
“It’s a little early to say about Jack. I haven’t been able to catch up with him or the medics who are dealing with him,” Baxter said. “I would imagine it will be the usual story – until he has a scan we won’t know. It looked like his ankle and he has had a couple of ankle issues this season. He was outstanding. He was very difficult to put on the floor, very strong, quick and elusive.”
Saracens boss Mark McCall came out the winning side of the highest-scoring final of all time, while his players also produced the greatest comeback in the history of the showpiece.
“We huffed and puffed, but somehow this group found a way physically and emotionally,” McCall said. “It was a really tough final – the toughest we’ve ever had in the Premiership. We couldn’t control them but somehow this group never ceases to amazes me in finding a way and the energy.
“We looked tired and once we went three points up we played great pressure rugby and it was a real masterclass. It’s our seventh consecutive win in a final, which is an incredible achievement from this group of players.”