“It’s All About Me”
The coaching team became known for a canny ability to spot potential in players in lower leagues or those who were rejected by other clubs, while taking the time to develop them into top performers. But Exeter also built a strong academy of up-and-coming young players, and a highly talented group – including Henry Slade, Jack Nowell, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Dave Ewers and Sam Hill – graduated from this system as the Club established itself in the Premiership.
Baxter sensed it was time for a change in tack and had one-on-one meetings with his players to discuss adopting a new approach to team culture.
“If your recruitment is good and your academy works well, you start getting players who want a bit more than being this kind of plucky team that wins more than people expect,” he said. “History shows that those players migrate – whether it’s in football, rugby, American football – to successful teams. And I wasn’t going to stand here and go, ‘It’s okay to lose.’ Sooner or later, one, two or three of them would say, ‘Leicester and Wasps seem to be able to win trophies, I want to do that and play for England.’”
After engaging with players on their personal goals and motivation, the “GRACE” signs were taken down and the team adopted “It’s all about ME”, broken down into three sub-components: My Energy, My Emotion, My Enjoyment.
Every player needed to understand their individual importance to the team, the responsibilities associated with that, and how to maximize their contribution. The idea was for the team to set ambitious goals and push each other to meet them.
“What would happen before was that it was kind of okay for the odd guy to be the weakest link of the chain, because if we lost a game, the team would look after him,” Baxter said. “But that’s almost the opposite of what you want. You want the team to set higher standards and demand more. You need everyone to understand there’s nothing wrong with demanding more.
“The key isn’t saying ‘I expect you to work hard,’ it is to get the person to understand how important they are to the success of the team, and actually to want to be that person who’s really important,” he added. “We had to give people the ‘why’. Why should I be the one who works flat out, when I can see that guy over there not doing the same? If you can get the guys to break that cycle, you’re straight away on an upward curve.”
And while the emphasis moved away from the collective to focus on the individual, the concept of “care” for teammates became central to the theme of taking full responsibility for performance – despite being met by nervous smiles when originally introduced by Baxter to his squad of 45 players.
“If you’re a teammate of mine, if I care about you, in a sporting environment, I should train hard, get my diet right, do my weights, learn my calls, learn the patterns for the plays we’re going to use this week, do my preview on the opposition, be diligent,” Baxter said. “You have less chance of winning if I don’t do that. And as a teammate of mine, I should have the expectation that you will do the same. And so that’s how you care for each other, and that’s what makes you important.”
The shift in culture helped to catapult Exeter to the very top of European club rugby. The team have competed in the Premiership final in each of the last six seasons, winning it twice, and beat French side Racing 92 in a tense European final in 2020. Baxter received the honor of OBE (Order of the British Empire) in the 2021 New Year Honors, after originally thinking the email was a prank, and is widely tipped as a future head coach of the England national side.