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Fin Baxter: ‘They run at me as I look young – but I’m not easy to pick on’
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Fin Baxter: ‘They run at me as I look young – but I’m not easy to pick on’

In the salons of Bordeaux this week relatively little attention has been paid to Fin Baxter. Harlequins have starrier names in their match-day squad and anyway it is their attacking prowess that hogs the headlines. If the massive local props are considering their 22-year-old opponent, it will be as a quick amuse-bouche before they tuck into something more substantial.

They will not be the first to make that misjudgment. Never mind that Baxter looks even younger than his years and has the cherubic appearance of a choirboy awaiting evensong. He could be England’s next big thing, if you listen to his captain, Stephan Lewies: “He’s a future international prop in my opinion. He’s ridiculous for a 22-year-old and he’ll just get better with time. He’s a future leader of the club if he keeps his head down and keeps working. Which I think he will because he’s that type of guy. I can’t speak highly enough of him.”

So much for first impressions. Baxter sometimes finds it works to his advantage with people who expect all the best front-rowers in the game to be unshaven, wild-eyed and outwardly scary. “Occasionally people have underestimated me. Sometimes it’s a case of: ‘Who am I going to run at? He looks like the young one, let’s go at him.’” They tend to reconsider soon enough. “I feel I’ve sent pretty good messages around that. By no means am I easy to pick on.”

If Bordeaux’s behemoths are licking their scrummaging lips in the absence of the flinty Joe Marler, good luck to them. Earlier this season, when the England head coach, Steve Borthwick, asked Marler to recommend any young Premiership looseheads he particularly rated, Baxter’s name immediately came up. “If you chat to Joe he speaks really positively about Fin Baxter and the potential he has,” Borthwick said.

So who exactly is this baby-faced operative, a decent bet to go on tour with the national side to Japan and New Zealand this summer? His CV is already quietly substantial – Wellington College, England Under-18 and Under-20 captain, a European club debut as a teenager, able to play on both sides of the scrum – but, on a midweek afternoon in Guildford, it is his mature mindset that sticks out. Take, for example, his view on facing more established props with bucketloads of caps. “Playing with fear in a contact sport is not good. There are a lot of good quality props, especially playing in Europe, [but] when I come up against these guys I’m not fearing failure.

Fin Baxter in the Champions Cup aganst GlasgowView image in fullscreen

“If it doesn’t go well, that’s where I’ve got to be. And if it goes well, you’ve played against some of the world’s best players and you’re nearly at that level. Coming through so young made it daunting and that’s closely aligned with fear. But I didn’t want to feel like that. I want to feel confident.”

Even the best young props, however, need to be patient and serve their apprenticeship. Baxter was always a reasonably big lad in his early days at Cobham RFC but not extraordinarily so. Nor did rugby run in the family. “The width is from mum’s dad, who’s actually an artist. He’s very stocky but he never played any rugby.” And despite having a brother called Calder – ensuring the siblings collectively echo the name of the former Scotland and British & Irish Lions captain Finlay Calder – he insists there is no massive Scottish heritage either. “My parents had no idea at all. I got to about 12 and one of the other parents at rugby said: ‘You’re not Scottish, you can’t call your children that.’”

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He would not be where he is now, though, without a streak of something slightly different. While there are heavier props out there – “I’m not a massive freak of nature but I’ve got quite a short neck and I’m pretty compact” – Baxter is competitive, driven and self-aware enough to appreciate what it takes to prosper in his demanding trade. “You’ve got to be strong. End of. But there is also a level you can’t get to if you’re not gritty and streetwise. It’s about the little tactics, sensing what people are going to do and being quick to react.” And hanging in there when the going gets tough. “I’m not the best scrummager in the world but I’m not bailing out. I’m giving it all the way. Scrums are a real point of pride with Quins. We talk about going to the end. We scrum for a long time in training for that reason.”

He might have had a rather less stressful life had he stuck to his original plan to become a civil engineer but Baxter, now studying for an Open University degree in economics, has never felt drawn to the easiest option. “I don’t feel that doing exactly what I want to do the whole time is that good for me,” he says, his thirst for self-improvement further underlined by the book he is currently reading. “It’s called The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck. It’s about doing your own thing and certain ways of thinking that change behaviour.” Not your average computer gamer, then.

Facing a rampant Bordeaux at the Stade Jacques Chaban-Delmas – where the hosts have already stuck 100 points on Saracens in two games this year – will certainly test the young man’s resilience, both mental and physical. While Quins’ director of rugby, Billy Millard, regards it as just another part of the learning curve – “He’s been exceptional and this’ll be another big experience for him” – Baxter himself will be holding absolutely nothing back. “You’ve got to get the message across early that we’re not here to make up the numbers. We’re here to compete. Our scrum’s been going really well this year and it’s something we want to put on them.”

So if things go OK in Saturday’s quarter-final – “When I become too fixed on playing well that’s when it doesn’t work” – will he be even keener to test himself on the international stage? “I want to play for England and I want to play for the Lions,” he replies, matter-of-factly. “I’ve had a good year and I’m proud of what I’ve done so far.” He will be good and ready, he insists, should England pick him this summer. “I’d do my absolute best and I feel, on my current form, I’d do a good job.” Remember the name Fin Baxter. You’ll soon be hearing it a lot.

Source: theguardian.com