Baxter praises Chiefs display
By Mark Stevens
Exeter Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter believes his side are hitting form at just the right time as they look to claim one of next season's spot in the Heineken Cup.
Having experienced Europe's top Cup competition for the first time this season, the Devon club have made no secret of their desire to once again be rubbing shoulders with the game's elite sides.
And with just two weeks remaining of the current Aviva Premiership season, the Chiefs have positioned themselves within the all-important top six following their latest 27-6 victory over London Irish at Sandy Park.
Tries from Matt Jess and Dave Ewers helped secure the win, whilst leading scorer Gareth Steenson weighed in with a further 15 points and Henry Slade claimed the other two on his competitive debut in the top flight.
The Exiles countered with a penalty apiece from Tom Homer and Ian Humphreys, but they were never able to match the power and pace of Baxter's men.
Reflecting on his side's latest success, Baxter said: "I think it's a win that you will look back on and say it was a really good performance from the guys. To get that scoreline in the end, against what was a very tough and dogged London Irish side, especially in those conditions, was extremely pleasing.
"It was a tight contest for a long time and we probably felt we didn't make the best use of the breeze that was behind us early on, but at the same time you have to say fair play to London Irish because they stood in front of us, kept knocking us over and that made it tough for us."
Although the Chiefs led 12-3 at the break, they repelled a strong attacking display from the Exiles after the break, before stinging them with tries from Jess and Ewers.
"Obviously I'm pleased with the win, but I'm also really pleased with others aspects of our game today," added Baxter. "It was probably the first time I've seen us in a really tight game soak up that five-metre pressure and not let it turn into penalties or scores. Some of our defence was outstanding today and having repelled what Irish threw at us, we then went down the other end and put in some killer scores of our own and it really opened up the game for us.
"As I said, I was really pleased with that character and that ability to soak up pressure because that is what very good teams in the Premiership do and perhaps what we have maybe not done in the past. We know we can go out there and score, but when teams turn the screw on us in the 22 we've tend to concede things. We didn't do that today and only conceding six points, despite some good Irish pressure, is very pleasing."
Exeter's win help leapfrog them over both Bath and London Wasps to sixth in the table and Baxter is keen they push on in the final two games of the campaign. First up will be Sunday's trip to Adams Park to tackle Wasps, before Gloucester are the visitors to Sandy Park on May 4.
"The best thing is qualification for the Heineken Cup is still in our hands - and with two games to go that's a nice place to be," said Baxter. "It's also nice to be playing good rugby and preparing for a big game of rugby next week. I'm happy the game is next Sunday as it will gives us that little bit extra recovery time because today was tough. However, if you look at the guys jogging off at the end, they are relishing what we are doing. Right now they are looking fit and hungry and we look enthusiastic about playing.
"Certainly our form is good. We've played five games, won four of them and the one loss we had was by three points to a very good Leicester side. I think what you can see at the minute is a team that is hitting its straps and wanting to achieve something come the end of the season. We may have left the run a little late to be challenging right at the top, but things are in our hands over these next few weeks and it will be interesting to see if we can fight our way into one of those Heineken Cup spots because that is where an enthusiastic and ambitious team should be."
As well as the win, the other major positive for Baxter was the sight of Henry Slade taking to the field for the first time in the Premiership.
The England Under-20s fly-half was given a late cameo by the Chiefs coaching team, but he wasted little time in making his mark on his competitive debut.
With his first touch in the Premiership, Slade came within a whisker of claiming a debut try when referee Martin Fox adjudged he had been held up on the line. But he did manage to claim his first points when he slotted an excellent conversion to Ewers' late try.
Baxter added: "It was fantastic to get Henry some game time, especially in a pivotal position like fly-half. He knows he's not going to get chucked on in too many games at this stage, but to get him on today was another one of the steps in his overall development.
"He's had some time on the bench, he's been on the pitch today and it looked to me as though he had scored with his first touch. In the end he was deemed to have been held up, but it was a great experience for him and we expect a lot more from Henry moving forward."