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'If you start complaining about a refereeing decision, you haven’t been good enough'

Exeter Chiefs director of rugby took a very different approach to defeat than his counterpart in Leicester.

Rob Baxter speaks to the media after his side's defeat to Leinster.
Rob Baxter speaks to the media after his side's defeat to Leinster.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

NO COACH LIKES to lose.

They spend their matchweek, and many more prior to it, concocting plans and figuring ways to disrupt and dismantle facets of the opposition’s game on top of bringing new ways for their own team to play to its strengths.

So, even with at least a half an hour separating full-time and a coach’s press duty, it’s understandable when the blood is up and passions continue to run high.

However, it’s interesting to compare notes on men in similar positions who have both just watched their team suffer body blows in European competition.

On one end of the scale you have Matt O’Connor, furious with referee Jerome Garces (and the injured Andrew Conway) after his Leicester Tigers were well and truly tamed in a 38 – 10 loss.

And then you have Exeter Chiefs director of rugby Rob Baxter.

Following his first home loss in a major competition for a year, he could have easily allowed himself be drawn into a debate on whether Sean Cronin’s high tackle on Jack Nowell warranted the guaranteed seven points of a penalty try on top of the yellow card.

Instead?

“Ultimately if it’s not a high tackle it’s a try,” was his very succinct take on the incident, immediately followed up by:

But I don’t really want to talk about it, because often if you start complaining about a refereeing decision it’s because you haven’t been good enough to win a game of rugby. And that’s probably how I feel about this game.”

As impressive as Leinster were in the 8 – 18 success, they had to be at the peak of their powers to keep the Chiefs at bay. And when James Short brought the Sandy Park crowd to their feet as he swan-dived over the line to make the score 8 – 8, only the most blue-eyed visiting fan would have thought the Chiefs didn’t have it in them to go on and win from there.

After Baxter provides a very brief list of the skills he felt his side were lacking on the night, he concluded “I’m not too unhappy”. Matt O’Connor was the last man to defeat the Chiefs, seven games ago in September, but perhaps the Australian’s severely disgruntled state on Saturday came about because the Tigers came up so short in so many areas against an opponent they know so well.

Romain Poite, Gareth Steenson and Isa Nacewa Referee Romain Poite and captains Isa Nacewa and Gareth Steenson study the footage of Sean Cronin's high tackle. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Baxter’s post-match appraisal centred almost entirely on his own team. When he brought up Leinster, it was as an example of how he would have liked his side to treat their opportunities.

For some of coming away from Sandy Park, the sight of the Chiefs’ fluid side-to-side possession making yards and, eventually, the game’s highlight-reel moment. Baxter called on his side to be more patient, to be willing to wait and wade through those 44 phases if that’s how long it takes to get the job done.

I was more frustrated that, after having one genuine go at the pick-and-go and multiple phase stuff, we wanted to pass the ball away from rucks.

“And that’s the bit we need to fight against. That’s that bit of, ‘oh it didn’t work last time so it won’t work this time’. You almost overreact.

“Because Leinster didn’t convert every time they had the ball, and they were pretty certain about what they wanted to do. The went through multiple phases and ended up scoring. But those are the lessons we have to learn.

“Although we have won a Premiership and been in a Premiership final, the European thing is still a big learning curve for us. The two wins were a big step forward and I think we were very competitive here today.

“Anyone watching that second half, with it being 8-8… that game was there for someone to take it by the scruff of the neck and we let Leinster do it, partly through good play from them and partly from pretty basic errors from us.”

The basic errors in catching and kicking are absolutely fixable for Baxter and his Chiefs. So he is by no means chalking this back-to-back clash up as a loss yet. Exeter will be rallied to go and level the head-to-head record in the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.

As his former captain Tom Hayes says, Baxter creates a workplace where players can enjoy what they do. Learning from errors and fixing them is key part of that.

“I’ve got no complaints about the result,” he said in summation.

“They obviously played better than we did and deserved the scores they got. Obviously the positive is I’m pretty confident we can play a fair bit better.

“We have that opportunity in just six days’ time. The challenge this week is to try to improve our performance more than Leinster improve theirs.”

Win or lose, every top coach in European rugby will already be back at the drawing board.

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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Sean Farrell

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