Chiefs side to face Bristol Bears
By Mark Stevens
Rob Baxter OBE wants his Exeter Chiefs side to use the hurt of last weekend’s defeat at Wasps as the driver for a much-improved display against near neighbours Bristol Bears tomorrow (4:30pm).
In what is a match up of the Gallagher Premiership’s top two sides, the Chiefs saw their perfect start to the defence of their title brought to a shuddering halt a week ago when they went down 34-5 to Wasps.
Bristol, meanwhile, were pulling level at the top with the Chiefs after they secured maximum reward from their home encounter against previously unbeaten Newcastle Falcons.
Now, the Westcountry neighbours will go head-to-head in a derby tussle which the Chiefs Director of Rugby says will offer the perfect challenge in the wake of his side’s setback at the Ricoh Arena.
“You have got to look forward to big games and you have to appreciate them,” said Baxter. “You have to enjoy them and you have to challenge yourselves within them. There is a reality that this should be a big game because it’s between two sides, both of whom want to be in the top four.
“We have to perform at that level and say to ourselves, if we want to be in the top four and we want to be winning the Premiership, you should be putting a marker down by beating a side like Bristol. They will be saying exactly the same at their end, they have ambitions to win the Premiership and they will be talking a lot this week about this is where they can put a marker down by beating Exeter down at Sandy Park. Therefore it makes it a very interesting game and one we want to play well in.”
With little to choose between the two sides for a number of years, honours were shared in the two meetings last season, Baxter is expecting another tight encounter tomorrow.
“If you look over the last few years, games between ourselves and Bristol have been notoriously close affairs, often with just one score between us. Up until Wasps last week, we had been performing very well, both in attack and defence, so we’ve used this week just to remind the players about what makes us a very efficient side.
“We’ve talked about taking things back to basics and doing the things what make us strong. A few of those slipped away last week - for whatever reason - and when that happens it doesn’t take a lot for you to lose momentum in a game. That’s what happened, but we know why it happened and we’ve used this week to try and address that as best as possible.”
Part of the learning process this week included a debrief in which the club’s leaders group even gave Baxter a telling off for his comments in the wake of the Wasps game.
“The first thing that happened in our leaders meeting was that I was told off by them for saying it was okay to lose,” explained Baxter. “That kind of shows where the players are and how they want to bounce back immediately.
“I asked them to explain what they meant and they said they were disappointed with my comments after the game that it was okay to lose. They didn’t think like that and that’s the standards we are now setting, which includes the view that we take to the field with an expectation that we should be winning the game.
“Of course, that takes a lot of hard work and an understanding for that to happen, but it was nice to hear that they demanded more of themselves and us as coaches.”
Indeed, Baxter has challenged his players to ‘knock it up a gear’ against a Bears outfit, who will be buoyed by a number of key players after international rest breaks and the need to self isolate due to the Covid-19 outbreak.
“It will be a good test for us, especially after last week,” said Baxter. ““You don’t have to be far off to lose to teams in the Premiership, that is why the Premiership is such a good competition because it is massively competitive and if a team are good on the day and another team are a bit off, things just tend to go that way and that is a little bit of what happened to us.
“Getting over it is no different to what we have always done. There have been plenty of losses in the time I have been involved in the Premiership and we lost last season and won a double.”
Ahead of kick-off, Baxter has made a number of changes to his starting line-up with recalls to the pack for England internationals Luke Cowan-Dickie, Harry Williams and Jonny Hill, while behind another of Eddie Jones’ men returns in the shape of Henry Slade at outside centre. The other change in personnel sees Aussie Jack Walsh handed his first-ever Premiership start at full-back.
On the bench, Scotland international Sam Skinner returns for the first time since Exeter’s win over Glasgow Warriors in the Heineken Champions Cup, whilst there are inclusions for Sam Maunder, Corey Baldwin and James Short.
EXETER CHIEFS SIDE TO FACE BRISTOL BEARS
15 Jack Walsh
14 Olly Woodburn
13 Henry Slade
12 Ollie Devoto
11 Ian Whitten
10 Joe Simmonds MBE (capt)
9 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne
1 Alec Hepburn
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Harry Williams
4 Will Witty
5 Jonny Hill
6 Dave Ewers
7 Don Armand
8 Sam Simmonds
16 Jack Yeandle
17 James Kenny
18 Tomas Francis
19 Tom Price
20 Sam Skinner
21 Sam Maunder
22 Corey Baldwin
23 James Short