Chiefs side to face Bristol Bears
By Mark Stevens
Rob Baxter insists his Exeter Chiefs side are on an ‘upward curve’ as they head towards the business end of their Gallagher Premiership title defence.
Last Saturday’s 43-13 victory over Wasps - the side they beat in last season’s Twickenham showpiece - was the biggest indicator yet that the Chiefs were finding their groove as the regular season heads towards it’s most exciting conclusion in years.
Not only did it send out a powerful warning sign to their top-flight rivals, but it also helped the Devonians to quickly banish the disappointment of their Heineken Champions Cup exit to Leinster just seven days earlier.
Tomorrow, Baxter’s side face another acid test of their credentials when they make the short jaunt up the M5 to face league leaders Bristol Bears in their Round 17 encounter at Ashton Gate (7:45pm).
The Bears have been the stand-out side so far in the Premiership this season and their 12-point advantage over the next-best Chiefs means the pressure is all on the visitors, particularly with the likes of Sale Sharks and Harlequins breathing heavily on the shoulders of the champions in their quest for a top two finish.
“I’ll be honest, we’re not playing at our best yet by any means,” said Baxter. “In fact, that best may still be a week or so away. However, we’re getting more and more time together with the whole group of players and I can definitely see us on an upward curve, which is important at this time of year.
“It’s a bit like when you are in a car, you can see we’re starting to go through the gears. You get to this stage of the season and you need to collect points to be there or thereabouts, but then you need to go through the gears to collect more and more points as you go. The reality is it’s a fantastic competition to be involved with this year because every round and every game has so many things riding on it.
“The different combinations of fixtures dropping in there make it very interesting for every club involved to really think ‘this could be our year’. Right now, six, seven, eight in the league, they are all in it still and it could easily be their year. It’s going to be really exciting come those last three rounds.”
For now, though, Baxter’s thoughts - and that of his players - is solely on the task awaiting them tomorrow against the Bears, who won the corresponding fixture at Sandy Park 20-7 back in January.
“It should be a good game, shouldn’t it?” said Baxter. “It’s first versus second, conditions are going to be good, the pitch is going to be good, and Bristol are a very good team, playing very good rugby. That said, we’ve started to show form ourselves, so it has all the ingredients to be a great occasion.
“Obviously, Bristol came down here earlier in the season - in what was a very competitive game - and they came through to win, so we’ve got bits to prove. At the same time, there are very important points on the line for us to collect, especially if we want to stay in the top two.
“It may seem a little less important for Bristol than us, just because they have that points lead, but they have earned that lead. We haven’t given ourselves any leeway at this stage, so we’ve got to keep winning if we want to keep teams away from us.”
Baxter saw, however, the desire that is burning within his players to repeat their domestic success of last season in their victory over Wasps. Despite trailing 13-10 at the break, the Chiefs plundered 33 unanswered points in the second half to run out comfortable victors.
“The Wasps game was important in a lot of ways,” explained Baxter. “And the most important thing was how we were prepared to fight for our Premiership title. That’s all I can ask of the lads. What they have shown, not just in that game, but in training and other games, is that they want to be seen as a group of players and as a club who want to have success and that continuity over a number of years.
“Yes, we were disappointed to get knocked out of the Champions Cup, but you can’t crumble just because you are not progressing beyond the quarter-finals. That was only our third quarter-final at that level, but lets go out and now and show we want to play in more big games like that.
“Although the Champions Cup has gone for this season, it won’t be too long before we’re back in it again and readying ourselves for the pool stages. What we have to do now is keep moving forward as a side and show that steel that keeps the team and the club pushing forward all the time.”
Team news for the Chiefs ahead of kick-off sees Baxter make a number of changes to his winning formula. Up front, Ben Moon and Tomas Francis come into the front-row in place of Alec Hepburn and Harry Williams; Jonny Gray is restored to the second-row and with Dave Ewers sidelined with a calf injury, Sam Skinner drops into the back-row to replace the powerful Zimbabwean.
Behind the scrum, the sole change sees Jack Nowell - who played his first game of the season last week when he came on as a second half replacement - start on the right wing at the expense of Facundo Cordero.
With Gray promoted from the bench, Richard Capstick comes into the match-day 23, as does returning Irish international Ian Whitten.
EXETER CHIEFS SIDE TO FACE BRISTOL BEARS
15 Stuart Hogg
14 Jack Nowell
13 Henry Slade
12 Ollie Devoto
11 Tom O’Flaherty
10 Joe Simmonds (capt)
9 Jack Maunder
1 Ben Moon
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Tomas Francis
4 Jonny Gray
5 Jonny Hill
6 Sam Skinner
7 Jacques Vermeulen
8 Sam Simmonds
16 Jack Yeandle
17 Alec Hepburn
18 Harry Williams
19 Sean Lonsdale
20 Richard Capstick
21 Stu Townsend
22 Harvey Skinner
23 Ian Whitten