Exeter boss fears for pro rugby future ahead of Premiership final

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Exeter Chiefs director of rugby Rob Baxter.
Exeter Chiefs director of rugby Rob Baxter.
Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Exeter director of rugby Rob Baxter may be just 80 minutes away from seeing his side complete a Premiership and European double but the Chiefs boss says the greater issue for rugby union is remaining afloat amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Baxter's men face Wasps in Saturday's Premiership final at Twickenham, a week after their thrilling European Champions Cup final win over Racing 92.

The behind closed doors match will take place after Wasps were given a clean bill of health following 11 earlier positive tests, including players and backroom staff for Covid-19.

Spectators are currently barred from professional English rugby union matches.

Premiership clubs can rely on television revenue to help weather the storm but, longer-term, they need fans back at their grounds.

"As everyone is going to be aware the biggest challenge for rugby at the moment is not who wins trophies, it's going to be staying around as a professional viable sport over the next 12 months," Baxter told a conference call on Wednesday.

'Killing a level'

Exeter chairperson Tony Rowe, a successful businessman, has been a key figure in the Chiefs' decade-long rise from the second-tier Championship to kings of Europe along with Baxter.

"I know we are okay here and now," said Baxter of Exeter's financial position.

"We can ride a certain amount of losses because of the success of the club and the value of the club and the things that are going on here. But it can't go on forever.

"It feels like our responses at the moment are lockdowns and hoping and waiting that something comes along like a vaccine."

Baxter, having played second-tier Championship rugby for Exeter, is also concerned by the plight of lower league clubs.

"We're actually killing a level of sport that we don't need to because we're not willing to move on in certain ways," he said.

"We haven't got the Championship going, which is criminal really. We're not even helping them put anything in place to get their game up and running."

Meanwhile Baxter was glad Wasps could take their place in the final.

"It was great to have a message from (Wasps head coach) Lee (Blackett) this morning saying their testing had gone well. And now we can confirm and get on with things.

"Wasps will deem themselves very unlucky. I think they are one of the teams that have hardly picked up anything at all right the way through, and then right at the business-end of the season they've had one little outbreak.

"I have every confidence that they are doing everything correctly, and I have got every confidence that this has been dealt with and everyone who will now be on the pitch in the final, both from Exeter and from Wasps, will be Covid-free and there won't be any danger to anybody."

Had Wasps been sidelined by Covid-19, their place in the final would have been taken by losing semi-finalists Bristol, who finished third in the regular season table.

Baxter said while it would have been a "bit odd" to play European Challenge Cup champions Bristol in the Premiership final, rugby union's worsening financial situation meant scrapping the final in Wasps' absence was not an option.

"The only thing that is producing revenue at the moment is games on TV," said Baxter. "Rugby clubs can't afford to not stage games and not to have television revenue. They just can't."

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