Chiefs side to face Bristol Bears
By Mark Stevens
In a week when defending Gallagher Premiership champions Saracens have been the talk of the town in regards to potential breaches of the league’s salary cap regulations, it’s on-field matters that will take centre stage for Rob Baxter and his Exeter Chiefs side this weekend.
Fresh from last weekend’s 24-20 win on the road at Worcester Warriors, Baxter believes Sunday’s return to home comforts against near neighbours Bristol Bears provides the Chiefs with the ideal test of their seasonal credentials.
Baxter, alongside the club’s chairman and chief executive, Tony Rowe OBE, have given detailed dialogue in the past few days to the national media about their stance on what had come out of the independent disciplinary panel’s review.
Saracens, as we know, have already challenged the findings, which include a £5.3 million fine, as well as the Londoners being docked 35 league points. And, it’s unlikely the matter will be resolved until the New Year at the very earliest, so Baxter is keen that the focus switches to games, rather than matters away from the field.
“We’ve actually just cleared the decks a little bit in our meeting today,” explained Baxter. “I just sat in front of all the players and said ‘What do you think of all this salary cap stuff?’
“At first, they all looked at me a bit strangely, but I know they’ve all been talking about it and I know they will all feel differently about it all. Some will feel sorry for themselves as they think things haven’t been all that fair. Others will be angry and others will be looking forward to playing Saracens again. Across the board, there are all kinds of emotions, but what I’ve just said to them all is let’s make sure we clarify what we are all about.
“We are a club that have an important Premiership game this Sunday. We’ve worked very hard to be here and this is what should occupy all of our energy. As I said to them all, I think it’s good not to run away from interesting conversations the lads are going to have amongst themselves, simply because by doing that it now allows us to get out and train really well for Bristol.
“We know as a group that we are going to need all of our focus set firmly on Sunday, because Bristol are a good side, they are going as well as we are in the league, and we obviously want to do well and move forward into next week’s Heineken Cup game feeling we are a side on good form.”
Past experience tells Baxter that the visiting Bears will be no pushovers. The last three top-flight encounters have seen the Chiefs win, but on each occasion only by a solitary score. It’s little wonder then the Director of Rugby is expecting another stiff challenge.
“Gone are the days now when you under-estimate the threat of a promoted side,” warned Baxter. “We, better than a lot of clubs, appreciate where we have come from and we have always given Bristol an awful lot of credit for what they have done. It’s probably what has allowed us to get the results we’ve needed and we certainly haven’t gone into any of those games lightly. They have been battles every single time and we’re expecting a similar thing this weekend.
“We have to prepare ourselves accordingly for that. Watching the lads out there, I think they’ve trained well, but I know we are going to have to be prepared to work incredibly hard on Sunday because the one thing that Bristol are prepared to do is work extremely hard for one another.”
Working hard, however, is very much part of the Exeter DNA and it was clearly evident in last Sunday’s hard-fought win at Sixways against the Warriors. Having trailed 17-3 at one stage, Baxter’s side produced a sterling fightback, capped when England prop Harry Williams rumbled over for the match-winning score five minutes from time.
“If anything, it was that fighting spirit and that willingness to keep on working that eventually made that game go our way,” continued Baxter. “70% territory, 70% possession, that kind of tells it’s own tale about the game. We were the side who were willing to keep going and going and going. What let us down was that we had conceded two relatively soft tries and we had to fight very hard to pull ourselves back into the game.
“If you scratch one of those tries off - even against a strong, disciplined Worcester side, who were playing very well - that could have been us pushing strong at the end for a winning bonus point. So, as I’ve just said to the guys, let’s have some confidence in what we do, but let’s also have some confidence in the fact that we need to stay focused throughout the whole 80 minutes. Because it’s those little moments that put you under the most pressure - and it’s those little moments that can hurt you come the end.”
Ahead of kick-off, Baxter has been buoyed by the return of four more of his players following the culmination of the Rugby World Cup. Welshman Tomas Francis is back nursing a shoulder injury sustained in the semi-final against South Africa, whilst English trio Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jack Nowell and Henry Slade are just nursing the wounds of narrowly missing out on lifting the William Webb Ellis Cup.
All three, however, will get the chance to get back into the rugby groove immediately as Baxter has thrust them all into his match-day squad for Sunday. Slade will start in the centre alongside Sam Hill, whilst Cornish pair Cowan-Dickie and Nowell are named amongst the replacements.
Other changes to the Chiefs line-up from a week ago see Jannes KIrtsen come into the second row in place of Dave Dennis, who has a foot injury. Sam Simmonds is back at No.8, so the back-row is re-jigged with Dave Ewers the man to miss out on this occasion.
Behind the scrum, Aussie Nic White comes in for his first start of the season, whilst summer signing Stuart Hogg is poised to make his Sandy Park bow for the Chiefs, having featured twice already on the road against Bath and Worcester.
Alongside Cowan-Dickie and Nowell, there is also a welcome return to first-team duties for Don Armand, who has yet to feature this term following summer surgery.
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CHIEFS SIDE TO FACE BRISTOL BEARS
15 Stuart Hogg
14 Tom O’Flaherty
13 Henry Slade
12 Sam Hill
11 Alex Cuthbert
10 Joe Simmonds
9 Nic White
1 Alec Hepburn
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Harry Williams
4 Jannes Kirsten
5 Jonny Hill
6 Jacques Vermeulen
7 Matt Kvesic
8 Sam Simmonds
16 Luke Cowan-Dickie
17 Billy Keast
18 Marcus Street
19 Sean Lonsdale
20 Don Armand
21 Jack Maunder
22 Gareth Steenson
23 Jack Nowell