Chiefs side to face Bristol
By Mark Stevens
Rob Baxter is hoping his side’s Christmas hangover is replaced with a rapid New Year remedy as Exeter Chiefs prepare to welcome local rivals Bristol Bears to Sandy Park in the Gallagher Premiership tomorrow (3pm).
The Chiefs brought the curtain down on 2018 with a narrow 31-28 defeat at Northampton Saints. However, Matt Kvesic’s last-gasp try not only brought them the bonus of four on the night, but it also enabled the Devonians to finish within seven points, ensuring two losing bonus points from their trek to Franklin’s Gardens.
Those two points, coupled with Saracens only getting four at home to Worcester Warriors 24 hours later, meant Baxter side finished the year still in pole position and very much on course to attack the second half of the league season.
And that second half begins in earnest tomorrow against a Bears outfit, who the Chiefs have already toppled in league combat already this season. Again, Baxter’s side left it late - this time claiming a penalty try with the last play of the game at Ashton Gate - to secure a 31-29 success back in November.
Since then, the Chiefs have beaten both Gloucester and Saracens on home soil in the top flight, but they have suffered defeats on the road to both the Saints and, before that, Harlequins.
Although frustrated with aspects of his side’s display last time out, Baxter acknowledged this week that the positives from the campaign to date far outweighed any negatives - and that the Chiefs are in a more than healthy position heading into 2019.
“I thought Northampton trend up in a fantastic frame of mind last week to really fight for everything in the game,” said the Chiefs’ Director of Rugby. “And although we certainly had more than a foot hold in the game - and we felt we had ways of winning the game - it was probably just one of those night that just slipped away from us.
“We were hugely dominant in certain areas, like the scrum, and our possessions and territory stats were huge, but when it actually came to us being clinical and on the edge of where wanted to play, we were just a bit off.Looking back at the game this week, I think what disappointed us the most was that we didn’t really go up there and demand or force the win.
“That said, I’ve also said to the players that we have to look at the bigger picture.We are now halfway through the Premiership season, we’ve got more points at this stage than we have collected before; we’re top of the league; and over the last five games we are the side who have collected more points than anyone else.For me, there are lots of positives for us to take, so I do find it off when people are saying we are dipping in form, yet when you look at the stats, we are the form team based on points gathered.”
Baxter added: “What we have had to focus on this week is why weren’t we at the same levels as we were against Saracens the previous week?
“Reflecting on it all, there are lots of reasons for that.We had a shorter turnaround compared to that of Northampton. Christmas came in the middle of everything. Plus, we travelled on one of the busiest days and there were lots of coughs and colds around the place.When you put all those things together, it all contributed in its own way to the performance on the night.
“That said, we still scored four tries, we still got a losing bonus point, and we still got very close to winning the game. Although I can be critical - and I have been to the players - I have also have to look at the whys and the wherefores of why something things do change.”
Now, having had a full training week to utilise, Baxter is hoping home comforts will ensure the Chiefs maintain their unblemished record of not losing to their nearest and dearest in the Premiership this weekend.
“We’ve got a big focus on Bristol and this weekend,” said Baxter, whose side head into crunch Champions Cup dates with Castres and Munster in the next fortnight. This is the first of three big games coming up for us, so our performance levels, the way we want to play, plus the intensity we need to practice at should all come into play for this game.
“I know it looks to some that we are looking beyond this weekend’s game, but that’s not the case at all. We are looking at this game as the opportunity to get our game to the levels we know we have to be at when it comes to Europe in a few weeks’ time. For us, this weekend should be a stepping stone to being a better team and that is how we have focused this week ahead of the game.
“We expect the qualities of what the players show this weekend to be a definite stepping stone heading into Europe.”
Team news for the Chiefs sees Luke Cowan-Dickie, Dave Dennis and Jonny Hill all return to the starting XV up front, while behind Henry Slade is brought into the midfield alongside Ian Whitten and Phil Dollman gets the nod at full-back.
Although back in full training, England and British Lions winger Jack Nowell is not included for this weekend’s match, but he will get a run-out for the Exeter Braves in their Premiership Rugby Shield clash the same day away to Gloucester.
CHIEFS SIDE TO FACE BRISTOL BEARS
15 Phil Dollman
14 Santiago Cordero
13 Henry Slade
12 Ian Whitten
11 Tom O’Flaherty
10 Gareth Steenson (capt)
9 Jack Maunder
1 Ben Moon
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Harry Williams
4 Dave Dennis
5 Jonny Hill
6 Sam Skinner
7 Sean Lonsdale
8 Matt Kvesic
16 Jack Yeandle
17 Alec Hepburn
18 Tomas Francis
19 Mitch Lees
20 Wilhelm Van der Sluys
21 Nic White
22 Joe Simmonds
23 Ollie Devoto