Gallagher Premiership Rugby Final: Rob Baxter v Mark McCall
The unstoppable force meets the immovable object on Saturday in a grandstand Gallagher Premiership Rugby Final that sees Saracens take on Exeter Chiefs at Twickenham Stadium.
The top two finishers in the regular season powered through their semi-finals at the weekend – Saracens past Gloucester Rugby and Exeter past Northampton Saints – both finalists fine examples of power-game rugby played to perfection.
In the run-up to what promises to be a thunderous clash on Saturday, we’re taking a look at the two directors of rugby who built these awesome sides: Mark McCall and Rob Baxter.
There are many similarities between McCall and Baxter, not least the fact that they’ve both produced hugely-physical and ruthless Gallagher Premiership Rugby-winning sides.
Both directors of rugby have been able to achieve this after being at the helm of their respective clubs for similarly long periods of time.
McCall, a former Ireland player, coached at Ulster and Castres before moving to Saracens where he operated alongside Brendan Venter in the 09-10 season before taking over midway through 2010-11.
Baxter, a fearsome second row and club captain at Exeter in his playing days, became the club’s forwards coach upon retirement, then taking over as head coach in May 2009 and overseeing a meteoric rise into, and to the top of, the Gallagher Premiership Rugby table.
Wayne Barnes will be the man in the middle for the #GallagherPrem showpiece on Saturday 👮♂️
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) 28 May 2019
With their long reigns in charge, the two DoRs have pitted their wits against each other many a time in the top flight.
They have played each other 21 times in the Gallagher Premiership with McCall holding the advantage over his rival – the Saracens DoR has won 12 of those 21 encounters with Exeter winning eight, and one draw.
Of course, with Exeter having worked their way up from the Championship under Baxter, Saracens were understandably much stronger in those earlier years and the comparison gets more relevant the more recent we go.
In 2017-18, Exeter won both regular season fixtures while this year it’s one victory apiece, with the Chiefs running in a quartet of scores in a 31-13 win in December and Saracens prevailing in the return fixture at Allianz Park, 38-7.
But Saturday is final day and we have excellent recent history in which to read into here also – in 2016, Exeter ran Saracens close but fell to a 28-20 final defeat, while McCall’s men triumphed against the Chiefs 27-10 in last season’s finale.
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) 28 May 2019
A contrast in styles
Both directors of rugby have built extremely successful teams, with Baxter’s men topping the league in the past four seasons and winning the title in 2017, while McCall has overseen titles in 2011, 2015, 2016 and 2018.
With the top two dominating so many opponents in recent years, many people often lump their styles together but in reality, McCall and Baxter both coach their sides very differently.
Exeter, when you look at the overall statistics from Gallagher Premiership Rugby this year, unsurprisingly rank number one for tries per game – 4.1 – and also have the best goal-kicking percentage in the division – 87 per cent – which could come in very useful in a tense final.
Baxter’s men also make the most carries (148.6 per game), beat the most defenders (26.3 per game) and rank third for passes (170.7 per game).
In direct contrast, Saracens are ranked 11th for carries, tenth for defenders beaten and 11th for passes per game.
McCall’s men do rank particularly highly in a number of other areas though, kicking from hand the most and conceding very few turnovers, where they’re ranked third.
Ahead of Saturday’s final, McCall is targeting an improved performance on what as already an excellent display against Gloucester: “We need to be better. It’s almost perfect because we’ve won comfortably (against Gloucester) and scored some good tries but still have a frustrated changing room.
“If we want to get the result that we want, then we need to be better. The players understand that.”
Baxter is confident that his side have improved from last season, and will continue to: “I think what you have to try and gain confidence from is that we’ve got a large group of players here, a lot of who were involved last year and had a good season. They’ve had another good season this year, come through some tough games and some tough experiences, so we should be a better team based on that alone.
“Obviously, we will have to have a good week and we will have to play well on the day, but we’re an improving side. We’ve scored more league points and more tries again this season than last season and our stats are improving week by week, month by month, season by season.
“If we continue to make these improvements, then we will pin sides back and that gives us our best opportunities. It’s just got to be about our levels of improvement moving forward that give us confidence.”
With a record five wins under his belt, the @Saracens scrum-half relives the emotion of last year’s showpiece 👇
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) 27 May 2019