Rob Baxter has spoken of his delight after it was confirmed today that he will form part of England’s coaching team for their summer’s tour to Argentina.
The Exeter Chiefs head coach, along with Saracens defence and forwards coach Paul Gustard, will form part of the coaching team assembled by England head coach Stuart Lancaster for the trip to South America in June.
Subject to Aviva Premiership placings, Tavistock-born Baxter will link up with Lancaster and attacking skills coach Mike Catt to prepare for the Killik Cup against the Barbarians at Twickenham on May 26, while Gustard will be available once Saracens’ Premiership and Heineken Cup involvement has ended.
It is – according to the man himself – a "massive honour", but it’s a challenge and experience the 42-year-old is keen to take on having overseen the rise of the Chiefs out of the Championship in 2010. Since then Baxter has been the guiding light as the Devon club made their mark in the Aviva Premiership and Heineken Cup.
"Obviously I am delighted to have been asked to be part of Stuart’s coaching team," he said. "I see it as a fantastic opportunity for me to do what we keep saying to the players here at the club, which is to keep learning; keep doing better and experience new things. For me, this is a fantastic opportunity to experience something different; learn from other coaches such as Stuart, Mike Catt and Paul (Gustard); learn from different experiences and work with some different players.
"As a coaching staff we often talk about how important it is that we work as hard as the players in terms of the things we do. Personally, I see this as a chance to do that, but also a chance to work in a different environment and see what I can bring back to the club."
Since leading the Chiefs into the top flight, Baxter – who figured in excess of 300 league and cup games for Exeter during his playing days – has not been short of creditable suitors around the game. Many have praised his coaching abilities, whilst last season his efforts were rewarded when he collected the Aviva Premiership Director of Rugby accolade.
However, Baxter insists the rise of his team has been down to those working alongside him at Sandy Park. He added: "Yes this is a fantastic opportunity for me personally, but I am also very aware that opportunities like this come along because other people work within the club have worked very hard as well. I’ve said many times that we have a really good set of coaches here, not just on the rugby side, but conditioners, physios and the off-field staff too.
"The way those people work, along with the players, have given me this opportunity simply because of the hard work they’ve all put in. By having good seasons and good performances, the people that are in charge are seen as doing a good job. I don’t think I would get seen quite as well if the team did not perform so well.
In some ways, it’s a nice little reward for those people as well, but as tends to happen when you’re the boss, I am the guy that gets the credit. But from my perspective, I like to thank them all of them for their hard work as this is what creates opportunities like this."
And it is club matters that will keep Baxter fully focused in the build-up to the June tour. He continued: "I am very pleased to have been considered for the position, but what I have to do now is do a good job for Exeter. First and foremost, it’s about putting all this to the back of my mind for now and worrying more about it when the season finishes.
"I certainly won’t be doing too much before then as we have to get through what is a very important set of fixtures for the club. We’ve got some very big games coming up and that has to be my main focus."
With many of England top name stars likely to be needed with the Lions Down Under, the Argentina tour not only offers Baxter a chance to sample life at international level, but also players who will be keen to stake their claim under Lancaster.
"Because of the Lions tour, it will be a slightly different squad of England players going on tour. It will be an opportunity for some to go out and perform for England, so I am hoping that it makes it very exciting for those guys. They will all want to play well, but it’s going to be tough against what will be a very solid Argentina squad. However, I am sure that is how Stuart will want it. He will want a tough environment for his players as ultimately that will be how they improve as a team.
"My role primarily will be to look after the forwards, but what I will need to do is meet up with Stuart and Graham Rowntree and look at things they are working on and what they want to have in place for next year. Obviously part of my role will be to put a bit of a personal stamp on things, but mainly it’s about fitting into what is there already. They’ve just had a successful Six Nations with their current group and it’s very much about maintaining a lot of what they’ve done in that and then looking to improve in other areas."
Baxter’s call-up has been backed by officials at the Chiefs and the coach was quick to praise the support he has received from the board and chief executive, Tony Rowe OBE
"For England to talk to me they had to get permission from the club," explained Baxter. "Throughout, the club and the board have been very supportive. They are very aware it’s a good chance for me to improve as a coach and they’ve given me 100 per cent backing from the outset.
"Sometimes when you look back and see how the club has progressed over the last few years – like playing in the Premiership and the Heineken Cup; like having international players and the opportunity to go on international tours – these are all things we want to progress at the club. We want to be seen as a positive and progressive club and hopefully more of these things will come to our players and our coaches in the future."