Not since their maiden European campaign in 2010 - against Bourgoin - had the Chiefs secured victory on French soil.
Six consecutive defeats across the Channel followed for Baxter’s troops, but they underlined their blossoming credentials with a powerful display at the Stade Marcel Deflandre.
Tries from Tom James, Brett Sturgess, Byron McGuigan and Fetu’u Vainikolo were among the highlights for the Devon club, whilst skipper Gareth Steenson landed a further 16 points to secure maximum reward from their 36-10 success.
La Rochelle countered with a converted first half try from Jean=Pascal Barraque, plus a penalty from Julien Auty, but it was scant reward against the Chiefs, who now have 11 points after three fixtures.
“It wasn’t a fantastic game of rugby, a bit scrappy, and I was a little frustrated - probably wrongly so given the quality of some of the things we did - about the performance,” said Baxter. “However, the truth is it was a bit of a change-up team and some of those lads desperately needed that game of rugby to keep them sharp.
‘The changes we made, mistakes we made, you could see why they were happening, but it will give us a good bit of video to work on with those lads that haven’t had a great deal of game time recently. Some of our defensive shape wasn’t great, our line speed was a bit off at times, and we looked like we were blowing a bit after 10, 15 minutes of the game.
“That said, there were a few guys out there that needed that 10 or 15 minutes to get that second wind. In some ways that’s probably an indication of a late night kick-off. The guys have been in a hotel all day and in a way it’s not great preparation kicking off at nine o’clock at night, therefore I’m pleased how we got that second wind and how we grew as the game went on.”
Having weathered an early storm from La Rochelle, the Chiefs slowly kicked into gear to claim converted first half tries from James and Sturgess, as well a penalty from Steenson.
“We looked more and more comfortable as the game went on,” added Baxter. “Steeno kicked immaculately again and that in turn kept the scoreboard ticking for us. Then, then second half we did was what you have to do when you get three tries and that was to go for it. You could see the guys look at one another and say this is an opportunity to go for the bonus point and they went for it.
“We pushed hard in those last few minutes and we got the fourth try, so we got everything we needed out of the game. I have to give great credit to the players for what they did and on the whole it was a thoroughly professional performance.”
With Baxter having made ten changes to the starting line-up from that which had defeated Saracens in the Aviva Premiership the week previous, the Chiefs leader says it’s vital that he keeps his whole squad firing on all cylinders.
“The boys looked pretty good and I don’t think we’ve picked up any real issues,” assessed Baxter post-match. “The bots will have a long weekend now and the chance to have a good rest and get their recovery in. That’s one of the benefits of playing on a Thursday night, but we’ll come in next week all ready to go again and build up for what will be another tough game against La Rochelle and what is going to be an important Premiership block.”
As for La Rochelle, the defeat - only their second at home this season - means they face an uphill battle to work their way back into contention, especially having already lost to Connacht in their opening fixture.
Baxter, though, still expects them to offer a threat when they visit Sandy Park a week on Saturday, He continued: “They had moments tonight and they will be looking to get better next week. They had opportunities which they know they didn’t take, so we have to look to improve in a couple of areas.
“Again, though, it’s a European game for us, against opposition we don’t tend to face too often, so it should be an interesting game and hopefully we can get a good crowd in and make it a really great atmosphere at Sandy Park.”
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