Chiefs side to face Saints
By Mark Stevens
Exeter assistant coach Ali Hepher says it is challenges like that of which they are set to encounter at Northampton on Sunday, which will ultimately make the Chiefs a stronger unit as they look to establish themselves further as a force within the English game.
Fresh from handing out a 43-6 loss on Sale Sharks, the Chiefs head to Franklin's Gardens in the Aviva Premiership this weekend looking to maintain that same impressive form which they displayed in their seasonal opener.
The Chiefs ran in six tries on day one, courtesy of Ignacio Mieres, Aly Muldowney, Matt Jess (2), Tom Johnson and Chris Budgen, but Hepher knows a much stiffer test lies ahead for the Devon club.
"Sunday will be a great challenge for us," said Hepher (pictured), who played 120 times for the Saints during a 10-year stint at the Gardens. "They're obviously a top team, not just in the Premiership, but also in Europe as well and that's where we need to be testing ourselves. I think this weekend will give us a good gauge as to how good a side we are."
Like the Chiefs, Northampton opened their Premiership account on a high last weekend as they triumphed 24-19 against Gloucester at Kingsholm and Hepher knows overcoming the Saints on their own turf is no easy task.
In their two previous top flight visits to the East Midlands venue, the Chiefs have claimed just a solitary losing bonus point. That came in season one of their Premiership history when a late try from prop Budgen, himself a former Saints star, saw the game end up 27-21. Whilst last term didn't prove any easier for Rob Baxter's side as they were on the receiving end of their worst defeat of the season, going down 33-3 in October.
However, both those results are now confined to the history books and Hepher - who won the Heineken Cup with the Saints in 2000 - is hoping this latest encounter will prove more favourable for the visitors.
"Being honest, we've been disappointed with our performances there in the past," added Hepher. "That said, you have to credit Northampton as they have come up with some great performances. It's a tough place to go for sure, but that's all the better for us in some ways as we know we have to challenge ourselves at the hardest places if we are going to improve as a side."
To at least counter that home threat, the Chiefs will have to meet the Saints head on and look to impose themselves from the outset, particularly up front where the Saints are notoriously strong.
"That's been their strength for years, they've always been pretty dominant up front," warned the Exeter coach. "It's an important area for sure, but across the board they have physical guys in every area. We're well aware we will need to be on top of our game, not just to control their threat, but to also try and impose our game on them. We won't concentrate too much on them, instead we will bring our game to the table and see what we can apply to them."
With the Chiefs in fine fettle against the Sharks, it is little surprise that Messrs Baxter and Hepher have decided to stick with the majority of last weekend's winning formula. An injury to Kiwi centre Jason Shoemark means he misses out this weekend, so Phil Dollman switches from full-back to the midfield, whilst the No.15 spot is filled by Luke Arscott (pictured). On the bench, the visitors welcome back Fijian powerhouse Sireli Naqelevuki as one of their three options in the backs.
The loss of Shoemark can be considered an untimely blow, but Hepher says the quality and depth of the current Exeter squad is there to be seen and he says the competition for places right across the board is helping to bring out the best in all of the players.
"The guys are on good form and there is pressure for places in every position," he continued. "That is why you get a performance like that of last week because there are those guys pushing hard behind. For us as coaches, that's really important and with the Braves winning on Sunday in the A League, that was vital as well as it keeps everybody working hard."
Hepher was also delighted with the way the Chiefs attacked the Sharks, particularly in the second half where Exeter ran in five tries.
"We have tried to simplify things and give a balance to our attack," he said. "We are always looking for space and options within our attacks, some of them came off last week and some didn't, but it's a case of developing the players and developing their understanding and decision-making.
“That's coming on really well and we are starting to threaten sides in the wide spaces, so we are happy with the way it went, but equally we missed a couple of golden chances and we know we have to be clinical if we are going to get anything out of the game this weekend."
Meanwhile, the Chiefs expect Australian international Dean Mumm to arrive at Sandy Park on Monday following his summer switch from Super 15 outfit Waratahs.
15 Luke Arscott
14 Josh Tatupu
13 Ian Whitten
12 Phil Dollman
11 Matt Jess
10 Ignacio Mieres
9 Will Chudley
1 Brett Sturgess
2 Chris Whitehead
3 Craig Mitchell
4 Tom Hayes (capt)
5 Aly Muldowney
6 Tom Johnson
7 James Scaysbrook
8 Richard Baxter
16 Simon Alcott
17 Ben Moon
18 Chris Budgen
19 James Hanks
20 James Phillips
21 Kevin Barrett
22 Gareth Steenson
23 Sireli Naqelevuki