The Rob Baxter Guide to Recruitment and Salary Cap Management

Tried to post this the other day but the site took exception to posting from my tablet for some reason. Anyway, an interesting insight even if largely common sense. Baxter’s wife must hardly see the poor bloke.

Credit : Daily Telegraph

Rob Baxter, Exeter’s director of rugby, describes the process of recruitment and retention as like assembling a four-dimensional jigsaw. As soon as you find a piece that fits, the whole puzzle changes shape, forcing you to subtract another. “It is one of those things that can drive you crazy, but when you can get it right it is very fulfilling,” Baxter says.

The latest jigsaw piece is Scotland lock Jonny Gray, whose signing was announced last week. Baxter had been tracking Gray for five years and the fit was obvious: a high work rate for a high work-rate team. As with his Scotland team-mate Stuart Hogg, Baxter attempted to sign Gray during his last contract cycle but got both men at the second attempt.

Those signings are the exception to the rule of the Chiefs’ recruitment strategy, which relies upon finding value in the deeper reaches of the Championship and in the periphery of other clubs’ squads. “You are building a squad within the salary cap, so that Moneyball part of it plays a part,” Baxter says. “It is not only about trying to get the best players you can get, it is about getting the best group of players for the right price.”

No one is more adept at uncovering rough diamonds than Baxter. His first signing as head coach, full-back Phil Dollman, is still going strong 11 years on. Players such as Harry Williams, Tomas Francis and Alec Hepburn have been catapulted from Championship players to internationals. Conversely, it is hard to recall a single dud.

Here, Baxter provides an exclusive insight into his recruitment and retention process:


There is no scouting department at Exeter. Nor is there a head of recruitment or general manager, as there are at other Premiership clubs. Everything related to recruitment and retention falls to Baxter. “One of the biggest weapons you have is getting the right players on the field,” Baxter says. “I would ignore it at my peril and the team’s peril.”

South African flanker Jacques Vermeulen looks like the latest hidden gem as one of the standout performers in the Premiership. Baxter watched on tape Vermuelen play at least a dozen games. He then coded – breaking down his individual actions, which is a duty Baxter performs for all Exeter games – a further six matches. “When I do that for a potential recruit, it feels comfortable,” Baxter says. “I can see how this guy works, where he fits in and where there are improvements. I would love to say that there is this magic ingredient. Most of it is just watching tape and getting a feeling. I watched Jacques and I got a feeling for him very quickly.”

No decisions are taken in isolation. If Baxter is scouting a forward, Rob Hunter, the forwards coach, will watch the same amount of footage. Same for a back, with head coach Ali Hepher and skills coach Ricky Pellow’s input. “Ali will watch whole games in a different way to how I would watch them,” Baxter says. “I tend to watch personal actions and involvements. Ali will also look at things like their movement in open field and work off the ball.”

Very rarely do their views not align. Baxter will also consult closely with Mark Twiggs, the head of strength and conditioning, and Jamie Fulton, the head of medical services.


If there is a single quality Baxter is looking for in potential recruits, it is character. “You can define character in all sorts of ways,” he says. “Seeing a guy who just wants to get off the floor and doesn’t have a breather every chance he gets. Guys who are not flapping their hands at a referee every five minutes. These are things that define a player’s character.”

Self-awareness is another key characteristic he looks for. “If you speak to a player and they know what their strengths and weaknesses are, then they are normally pretty coachable,” Baxter says. “There is no point in sitting down with a player if they see it completely differently to how you do.”

None of this is to suggest Baxter is only interested in recruiting an army of clones. There is a huge diversity of personalities within the squad and Baxter points to the dressing-room door where players emerge wearing everything from fitted shirts and trousers to baggy shorts and flip flops. “We celebrate the differences here. We don’t mind guys being a bit odd. We encourage that as long as they buy into being successful as a team. I don’t need them to fit in. By being different, they are actually fitting in.”

Salary-cap planning

Baxter takes sole responsibility for ensuring the club stay within Premiership Rugby’s salary cap. Given his background is in farming rather than accountancy, he admits dealing with numbers did not come easily to him.

Alan Quantick, the club’s finance director, spent “almost unlimited time” walking Baxter through how to operate the salary cap within a spreadsheet. Part of the cap’s fiendish nature is that it is constantly in flux, depending on the number of home-grown players and England elite player squad members.

“When you are struggling with it and you can’t see how you can keep the players you have got, let alone add anybody, it feels like you are spending hours staring at a spreadsheet,” Baxter says. “There are some weeks where it feels like it is the only thing you are doing.”

The process of recruitment is indivisible from retention, which Baxter says commands the majority of time. This summer, Dave Ewers, Matt Kvesic and Williams, the coveted England prop, are coming off contract. Baxter is confident that Williams will remain at Sandy Park, but all signings and re-signings must fit into a five-year depth chart for different positions.

“Any long-term contract impacts on everything over two, three seasons. If you have got an academy player whom you are confident will become a good player, then you have to create a hole in the squad for them to develop into. When they come into the first team and are coming off their academy contract, if you have not left any room within the cap then you will end up losing them.”


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