Baxter relishing champion test
By Mark Stevens
Rob Baxter says he and his Exeter Chiefs squad are relishing the challenge ahead as they prepare to tackle defending Gallagher Premiership champions Harlequins at the Twickenham Stoop this Saturday (3pm).
In what will be the first meeting of the two sides since the Londoners topped the Chiefs 40-38 in last season's Premiership Final, the Chiefs Director of Rugby is looking for his team to further build on their impressive top-flight form.
Last weekend's 19-13 success over Bristol Bears not only gave the Devonians the perfect start to the New Year but, more importantly, kept them firmly in the mix for the end of season play-offs.
Harlequins, however, are one of the sides above the fifth-placed Chiefs and they head into this latest on a high themselves, having recorded back-to-back wins over Northampton Saints and Gloucester during the festive period.
It's form that has been noted by Baxter, who said this week: “Harlequins look very settled and very comfortable in what they are doing. They have got great energy about the team and there is an emotional buy into what they are doing.
“They are one of the teams who are going to be a real challenge for any club this year. That said, I am looking forward to it because it will give us a good measure of where we are at the moment - and a good indication of the things we need to achieve to drive into the top four and get those end of season knock-out games we are after.”
In his weekly media briefing, Baxter reported that things looked good in terms of his selection options, although he doesn't expect the likes of Harry Williams, Stu Townsend or Jacques Vermeulen to return soon.
Winger Tom O'Flaherty - who was forced off at half time against the Bears following a head knock - continues to be assessed ahead of the weekend.
“Tom had a bang on the head, that is why we removed him at half time," added Baxter. "Right bow, he's going through the return to play protocols. Other than that, we didn’t pick up anything other than the normal bumps and bruises.”
As for Covid-19, Baxter admitted the club, like most in the Premiership, are identifying isolated cases of the virus but he is confident the Chiefs are firmly on top of the situation.
Last week Chiefs' midweek Premiership Rugby Cup fixture against Bath was cancelled after the hosts were unable to field a team due to a number of Covid cases and injuries in the front-row.
For the same reason, Bath conceded their Round 12 Premiership fixture against London Irish on Monday as the latest results from the league’s weekly testing saw 55 people test positive for the virus from 11 of 13 clubs.
Baxter said: “We have got bits and pieces of it [Covid] as I imagine every club has. By the time you add staff and players, there are 60 or 70 staff moving in and out of the building on a daily basis so you are going to pick up the odd bit.
“Every time we pick something up in a lateral flow that person leaves straight away and we then go through the PCR process. Some come back positive, some don’t, you just move on.
“We are pretty good with our protocols at stopping widespread outbreaks but we are no different to anyone else in society that we are picking up cases here and there.”