Chiefs side to face Bath
By Mark Stevens
It’s a result that still irks one or two at Sandy Park, but it was to prove a pivotal moment in Exeter’s title-winning campaign last season.
Having controlled large parts of their home encounter with Bath last October, the Chiefs were subsequently floored by a crafty sucker punch from their Westcountry rivals, when Fijian flyer Semesa Rokoduguni strolled over for a winning try deep into added on time.
It was a bitter pill to swallow for Rob Baxter’s side in the immediate aftermath. However, it would be the last time he and his side would taste defeat on home soil in the league, producing a stunning run of results that not only lifted them to English rugby’s top prize last term, but has continued to serve them just as well this season.
Buoyed by back-to-back victories over Harlequins and Saracens in the past fortnight, the table-topping Chiefs will be looking to continue their rich vein of form against their nearest and dearest, who themselves will arrive in Devon brimming with confidence following recent successes over London Irish and Harlequins.
With a capacity crowd set to pack in for the contest, Baxter says he is looking forward to the challenge that lies ahead. He said: “Games between ourselves and Bath are always great occasions and I’ve no doubt this weekend will be the same. We’ve enjoyed some big old tussles with them over the years - and that includes both games last season.
“As a group we’ve talked this week about last season’s game. On the day they beat us because they stuck in the fight longer than we did. Yes, it still rankles with some of the guys, but what it did show was that if you don’t work absolutely flat out, right until the end, things can still hurt you.
“We did a lot right in that game and we controlled if for large periods, but we let things slip at the end. Looking back, it was the game that probably gave us the jolt we needed. Out of it came the fact that if we wanted to win these big games and keep things in our own hands, we hd to be prepared to fight for everything in the 80 minutes.
“We did that for lots of last season, we’ve done it a lot this season, and if we do it again this weekend for the full 80 minutes, then we give ourselves a great opportunity. If we don’t do it and we switch off, we know Bath have some great players who can cause of a lot of damage.”
Although victorious in their last two Premiership fixtures, the Chiefs have had to dig deep on both occasions to fightback against their rivals from London. Baxter has highlighted the issue this week to his squad and emphasised the importance of a fast start against Todd Blackadder’s men.
“We haven’t been perfect in either game and we’ve been slow in getting ourselves up to speed,” said Baxter. “As a team we know we can’t do that every week and expect to win games of rugby. In some ways, though, it’s quite encouraging because it’s given us a real focus to target getting out of the blocks fast this week and making it a very big game.”
Not that this latest meeting needs a huge amount of hype in the build-up to kick-off. With the game selling out weeks ago, Baxter says it’s imperative his side get on the front foot early and get the Sandy Park faithful fully charged.
“It will be big if we can make it big,” added Baxter. “We can’t expect the crowd to be revved up unless we give them something to get after. That is something we probably didn’t do against Harlequins. We started quietly, we didn’t maintain any real intensity, and it was difficult for the crowd to stay on it because there were some many ups and downs.
“This weekend we have to do something in our body language, our intent, and the way we play to get the crowd really going. If we do that, then there is no better place to play rugby than Sandy Park.”
Ahead of kick-off, Baxter is buoyed by the news that his international contingent have all reported back from autumn Test duty in fine fettle. Two of them - Harry Williams and Sam Simmonds - are both included in tomorrow’s match-day squad, while Henry Slade and Tomas Francis are given the weekend off.
Also back in the frame for the first time in eight weeks is England and British Lions international Jack Nowell, who will get his first taste of competitive action since he fractured his eye socket against Newcastle Falcons at the start of October. The Cornishman will start the contest from a star-studded Exeter bench.
Other changes to the side that took 21-month unbeaten home record of Saracens last weekend see Alec Hepburn, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Williams form a new look front-row, Sam Skinner comes in at lock for Jonny Hill, while behind James Short comes in given the nod on the wing with Lachie Turner ruled out after picking up a bang to his head last time out.
CHIEFS SIDE TO FACE BATH
15 Phil Dollman
14 Olly Woodburn
13 Ian Whitten
12 Sam Hill
11 James Short
10 Gareth Steenson (capt)
9 Nic White
1 Alec Hepburn
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Harry Williams
4 Mitch Lees
5 Sam Skinner
6 Don Armand
7 Matt Kvesic
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Jack Yeandle
17 Ben Moon
18 Greg Holmes
19 Jonny Hill
20 Sam Simmonds
21 Will Chudley
22 Joe Simmonds
23 Jack Nowell