Rob Baxter suggests Northampton ‘mind games’ over prop injury crisis

Exeter director of rugby Rob Baxter was happy to help Northampton in their efforts to plug their loosehead prop injury crisis, but believes recent comments from the Saints have been verging on the side of mind games.

The two Gallagher Premiership teams will go head-to-head at Sandy Park on Sunday in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Champions Cup.

Ahead of the clash, Saints feared being forced into uncontested scrums with Francois Van Wyk, Alex Waller, Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi and Nick Auterac all out injured, which left rookie teenager Manny Iyogun as the club’s only fit loosehead.

However, the European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) board on Thursday morning allowed Gloucester’s Alex Seville to sign for Northampton and unanimously agreed to a change in the tournament rules which permits the registration of front row players after the deadline.

Baxter was pleased to see the situation resolved, but said: “I think outside of what has been seen in the media, club-wise we have known about this ongoing scenario and the need for EPCR to make a rule change for quite a while.

“We certainly made it clear to Northampton when they contacted us, that if the EPCR asked for any kind of rule which would allow them to register an extra player, we would agree with that and support it which we have done.

“It is interesting listening to some of the comments coming out of Northampton because just a couple of weeks ago, we played against them in a Premiership fixture and had a tighthead (Alfie Petch) on the bench, who came on and played.

“He had not played a minute of Premiership Rugby, was 20-years-old and I can’t remember anything being in the press about there being any issues about a guy playing his first minute of Premiership Rugby and the same two sides were involved.

“I think some of it is a little bit mind games if I am honest and a scenario that potentially isn’t really there when you look at what clubs have been doing in the games anyway.”

Exeter Chiefs celebrate a 22-19 victory away to Northampton Saints at the beginning of September
Exeter Chiefs celebrate a 22-19 victory away to Northampton Saints at the beginning of September

Northampton approached the EPCR about their loosehead issues before Van Wyk suffered an injury at Leicester on Sunday and had to be replaced by inexperienced teenager Iyogun.

Saints rugby director Chris Boyd’s insisted: “Manny is a 19-year-old boy who played all his football at number eight and had never really played in a men’s scrum before.”

It was also suggested Leicester’s Dan Cole had gone easy on Iyogun and Northampton look set to start emergency loan signing Seville this weekend.

“We don’t know how long he has been training with them,” Baxter added when asked about the Gloucester prop, who featured against Exeter in a league fixture earlier this month.

“They have been waiting for the EPCR regulations, so we don’t know how long he has been there preparing. That is one question.

“The other side is Alex played against us not very long ago, for Gloucester so he is more than capable of surviving against our front row.

“Every club has these challenges at certain times of introducing new players at short notice.

“I think he will be fine and I don’t think that will be a defining moment of the game, what will be the defining part of the game is which club turns up.”

While Saints have won the tournament before and were runners up nine years ago, the best Exeter have managed – despite their recent domestic dominance – is a single quarter-final.

Struggling for form on the domestic scene, could @SaintsRugby bounce back in Europe? 💪

They face @ExeterChiefs in the #HeinekenChampionsCup quarters on Sunday at 17:30 LIVE on @btsport 🏉

Relive their best scores of the season so far 👇

— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) September 17, 2020

Baxter’s side lost to Wasps at that stage in 2016 but Chiefs are a different proposition now, have reached the last four Premiership finals and face a Northampton team who have lost their last five games.

He added: “I’d like to think the magnitude of the game will help with us that (complacency).

“This is a European Cup quarter-final, it is a competition we want to do well in. We haven’t gone beyond this stage before. This is something we should certainly be targeting as a team.

“I would like to think regardless of the opposition, we would have an ability to focus on ourselves and look to put out what should be players preparing to have their best game of the season.”