Chiefs side to face Castres
By Mark Stevens
Rob Baxter is confident his Exeter Chiefs can deliver the telling blows as they prepare for two crunch weeks in this season’s Heineken Champions Cup.
In what has effectively become knock-out rugby for all four sides in Pool Two, the Chiefs are aware than anything less than victory against Castres at Sandy Park on Sunday (1pm) will effectively end their hopes of advancing into the quarter-finals.
Elsewhere, leaders Munster - who travel to Gloucester this evening and who are on 12 points at the summit - head the French champions by a point and are four clear of both the Chiefs and the Cherry & Whites heading into their penultimate round of battle.
With everyone seemingly in the mix, it’s little wonder that Director of Rugby Baxter and his team are relishing the challenge that lies ahead this weekend.
“I would never like to say you have one big defining game in a season, unless it’s a final,” said Baxter. “I would just say it’s a game we should really be looking forward to and that there are some real positives outcomes to come from if, providing we play well on Sunday. The one positive outcome is that we can go to Munster with something to play for next week.
“I’ve said to the lads, if you go to Munster with something to play for, you’re effectively in the last 16 of Europe and if you that game the likelihood is that you can go through. Of course, I know we have to see what happens with results this weekend and the game next week between Castres and Gloucester, but if we win this week and we go there with something to fight for, it’s probably a straight knock-out match and you’d probably take that in a lot of ways.”
In what has been a mixed bag so far for the Chiefs in Europe, their victory last time out away to Gloucester, where they secured all five points thanks to a late try from prop Harry Williams, means they head into this final fortnight knowing they have a reasonable chance of topping the pool, should they perform in the manner Baxter wants them too.
Castres, however, will be no pushovers. As reigning Top 14 champions, they already have an impressive CV at their disposal, but the Chiefs will be acutely aware that not only did they reign in a 14-0 deficit in the corresponding fixture back in October to win 29-25, but they played a large part of that game with 14 men after No.8 Ma’ama Vaipulu was shown red for a shoulder high hit on Exeter and England hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie.
Recent form for the Frenchmen hasn’t been great, winning only one of their last four league matches, but that sole triumph was last weekend when they won at Grenoble.
“We’ve looked at their recent games, including the Grenoble in, and we’ve seen a few things in their play,” said Baxter. “Obviously, they’ve shown they can bounce back, not just by winning last week, but also against us earlier in the season. You can see they are a quality side with lots of threats, so there are lots of challenges there for us to deal with.
“That said, when there are lots of challenges like that, the most important thing is to focus on yourself. We think there is a lot we can contribute to the game on Sunday. We know it’s going to be a sell-out crowd and that there is a lot hanging on it. Usually, that tends to bring the best out of us and I’m hoping it will again this week.
“Traditionally, we’ve played well against French sides in the past when our backs have been up against the wall, and that is where we are now, so let’s just make sure it brings the best out of us and that we enjoy the day.”
Exeter’s qualification hopes are similar to that of the 2015/16 season when, it appeared unlikely they would qualify, yet they did as they overcame the Ospreys at home and then Clermont failed to record enough points in their final day encounter at home to Bordeaux-Begles to advance.
A large number of the Chiefs squad remain in place from that season and Baxter is hopeful that experience, when his side booked a quarter-final place with just 16 points, can help inspire his side this weekend and next.
“I think it highlights to everyone that if you get out on the field, and whether people give you a chance or not, if you play and you just go for it, things can happen for you.We’ve talked that way this week and I’ve told the guys to go out enjoy, take what we can, and don’t be negative or nervy in any way. Let’s just get on with it all, enjoy the occasion, and see what happens.”
Fresh from beating Bristol in the Gallagher Premiership last week, Baxter makes a number of changes to his starting XV. Up front, there is a new-look front-row of Alec Hepburn, Jack Yeandle and Tomas Francis, while behind Don Armand is recalled to the back-row having been given the week off against the Bears.
In the back division, Nic White and Joe Simmonds - both impressive off the bench a week ago - get the nod at half-back, Ollie Devoto starts in the centre, while Jack Nowell returns to the fray for the first time since the Castres away game, having recovered from a hamstring injury sustained on international duty with England during the Autumn Internationals.
CHIEFS SIDE TO FACE CASTRES
15 Jack Nowell
14 Santiago Cordero
13 Henry Slade
12 Ollie Devoto
11 Tom O’Flaherty
10 Joe Simmonds
9 Nic White
1 Alec Hepburn
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Tomas Francis
4 Dave Dennis
5 Jonny Hill
6 Sam Skinner
7 Don Armand
8 Matt Kvesic
16 Luke Cowan-Dickie
17 Ben Moon
18 Harry Williams
19 Mitch Lees
20 Sean Lonsdale
21 Jack Maunder
22 Gareth Steenson
23 Ian Whitten