Exeter’s director of rugby Rob Baxter says “rugby is being singled out” with only 10,000 fans allowed to watch this Saturday’s Gallagher Premiership final against Harlequins at Twickenham at a time when special dispensation has been granted to other sporting events such as the Euros and Wimbledon.
With 65,000 now set to attend the European Championship semi-finals and final at Wembley, and capacity crowds permitted for Wimbledon’s men’s and women’s singles finals, Baxter believes rugby union could have been granted more leeway. “I don’t think anyone involved in rugby isn’t shaking their heads when they see the crowd numbers that are going to be at other sporting events,” said Baxter.
“What can Twickenham hold, 82,000? It seems very odd when other sporting venues have been allowed a quarter of their capacity. Pretty much every other sport seems to have events going on where they have a lot more than 10,000 people there. Why rugby has been singled out I don’t know.”
The issue is particularly relevant for Exeter, who clinched their European and domestic double in empty stadiums last autumn. “It’s obviously as frustrating for the supporters,” confirmed Baxter. “There are thousands who would have gone who now aren’t going to be able to go. That’s a shame but I suppose you’ve just got to keep taking the positives. We went to two finals last year with zero supporters. Getting 10,000 in there is better than having nobody there at all.”
Baxter also suggested the fit-again Jack Nowell could yet be a valuable addition to the British & Irish Lions squad in South Africa this summer following his two-try comeback in the Chiefs’ semi-final win over Sale Sharks. “Even I was impressed last weekend and I’ve seen him do it over and over again,” joked Baxter. “He’s put himself right back in the shop window. Now he’s up and running I can’t believe he’s not on the radar for the Lions as well as England. The whole summer could open up for him.”
Nowell’s return, however, has been less enjoyable for the Scotland captain, Stuart Hogg, who was dropped to the bench for the Sale game and had another heart-to-heart conversation with Baxter on Monday.
“He’s very angry and very frustrated in all the right ways,” said the head coach. “That’s what I expect. I don’t expect a successful professional sportsman and a world-renowned player to be happy with not being in the team coming into big games. He’s gutted not to be in the team but he’s been very good in training this week. He looks to me like he’s preparing to do whatever he can to help win a Premiership trophy.”
The young flanker Richard Capstick is also set to be available after being concussed last week as Exeter seek to become only the fifth English club since the leagues were formed to win consecutive domestic titles. “If we can double up it would be a remarkable run of 40 games or so if we can pick up three trophies during that period,” said Baxter, wary of the attacking ability that enabled Harlequins to stun Bristol last Saturday.
“We would like to think, based on our defensive stats over the season, that we can defend a little bit more. But if we’re defending all day against Harlequins you’re going to struggle at times. The key for us is to play our game. If we just assume that experience can help us and see us through, Harlequins’ enthusiasm and energy could overwhelm us. We will talk about how we can direct our emotion and energy into being the best version of Exeter Chiefs we can be.”