Baxter calls on Chiefs to crank up the levels
By Mark Stevens
Ahead of their Heineken Champions Cup opener this Saturday against Munster at Sandy Park (3:15pm), Exeter Chiefs Director of Rugby Rob Baxter is calling for more from his players, this despite their near perfect start to the new campaign.
Ten months ago they went into a big home European clash with Leinster on the back of playing some sparkling rugby against Bath, but they failed to back it up against the Irish province in the first of their December double-header.
Now, Devon's finest find themselves in a similar scenario, coming into this weekend's tussle having made it six wins from six starts in the Gallagher Premiership with their 39-24 victory at the Recreation Ground last Friday.
Baxter's options ahead of kick-off remain largely untroubled and he will pick predominantly from those on duty that night. Sam Simmonds, Jonny Hill, Mitch Lees, Nic White and Olly Woodburn remain on the injury list, although the latter two are edging ever closer to playing returns.
Whatever line-up he fields, Baxter is demanding that lessons are learnt from previous years and that his team can get their European campaign off to a flying start.
"I have said to the players, when they look back to the home game with Leinster last season, we went into that match off the back of a very good performance against Bath - probably our best performance last season in some ways - and we were pretty rampant in that game," said Baxter.
"Then, I think we rolled into the Leinster game thinking 'we are on form here and we're going to be fine' - when actually you need to stop sometimes and get the emotional recharge back into you that you are going to have to go out and battle and fight.
"We will spend time this week tidying up a few things from the Bath game, just because we have to, but actually what we might focus on are the little bits of fight you are going to have to win when a team come after you like Munster will.
"We need to talk about the fact that we need to crank up a couple of levels if we want to be successful, because I would hate to go 10 points down this week - as we did against Bath - and then have to fight our way back from there."
Indeed, last Friday's fixture allowed the Chiefs to gain a slender 24-hour advantage in terms of recovery on this weekend's rivals, whom they beat 12-0 in a pre-season fixture in Cork back in late August.
"A Friday night game has been really good timing for us and we can draw breath now and everyone can get ready to turn up for training on Monday," added Baxter. "Munster have rotated guys in and look like they are going to go really big, so it is going to be a really interesting game."
For Munster, meanwhile, it will mark a first-ever visit to Sandy Park. The two-times winners of the competition will head across the Irish Sea knowing they have lost just one of their last nine pool stage matches in the competition, that defeat coming in Round 5 last season against eventual runners-up Racing 92.
The visitors come into the game on the back of an away defeat to Irish rivals Leinster last weekend, a game which also saw their All Blacks scrum-half Alby Mathewson pick up a knee injury in the clash at the Aviva Stadium.
The former Hurricanes and Toulon star, signed as short-term injury cover for Conor Murray, will be given until the end of the week to prove his fitness, but Munster head coach Johann van Graan is preparing for the possibility that he will be without yet another quality number nine for the trip to the current Gallagher Premiership leaders.
Duncan Williams is on standby to cover the loss of Mathewson, although the visitors will be boosted by the return to fitness of Rhys Marshall, John Ryan and Tyler Bleyendaal.
In charge of the action will be Jerome Garces. It will be the Frenchman's third visit to Sandy Park, having previously overseen Exeter wins against Cardiff Blues (44-29) in October 2013 and the Ospreys (33-17) in January 2016.
He will be assisted on the day by Ludovic Cayre and Jonathan Dufort with Mike Hudson acting as 4th Official and Eric Briquet-Campin as the TV match official.