Chiefs side to face Harlequins
By Mark Stevens
As Exeter Chiefs rev up for a busy December, Rob Baxter says his side can ill afford to take their foot off the gas as they look to preserve their unbeaten status in this season’s Gallagher Premiership.
The Devonians made it ‘eight from eight’ with last Saturday’s 23-6 home win over Gloucester, a result which kept them marginally ahead of defending champions Saracens on points difference.
Now, they’ll be looking for more of the same as the Chiefs take to the road for a trip to the nation’s capital to face rivals Harlequins in Round Nine of the competition (7:45pm).
The fixture comes in the middle of a three-game trilogy Baxter’s side have against Gloucester, who they will face back-to-back in the next fortnight in the Heineken Champions Cup.
With a league victory already in the bag, the Chiefs have laid down a marker to the Cherry & Whites of what lies ahead. That said, Baxter doesn’t want upcoming matters to distract them from the ‘here and now’ and he has instilled into his squad this week the importance of turning up from the outset tomorrow night.
“People are aware the trilogy against Gloucester is going to play a huge part in how we will feel about our season,” said Baxter. “Knocking the game off against them in the Premiership was fantastic, especially in difficult conditions. I thought we were very good and very competitive, which ultimately led to us to getting an important win.
“Like anything, though, we’ve got to be prepared to move on quickly from Gloucester and move into what promises to be a tough test for us on Friday night. Because it’s a Friday game, it causes certain situations in terms of travel, staying the whole day in a hotel, but not what I’d call problems in any way because our lads traditionally deal with it quite well.
“As a group they like spending time together and we usually tend to play well in evening games, so that part of it we are OK with. The tough bit is that it’s another short week for us – which means we’ve had less recovery time and reduced training. Obviously, we dealt with it well last week against Gloucester and now we have to do it again this week.”
Standing in the way of the Chiefs will be a Harlequins outfit, who seem a much tougher nut to crack under new head coach Paul Gustard.
“By their own admission, Harlequins have been a bit patchy on form,” said Baxter. “But the trouble with teams who are patchy is you don’t know which patch you are going to hit. What we have to be prepared to do is go up there, work very hard – as we did at the weekend – and kind of not have that breather when you look too far ahead.
“That can be easy for us to do, especially with the two Gloucester games coming up, but what we have to do – and what we’ve talked about a lot this week – is to focus on what is in front of us, which is a big battle up at Quins.”
Baxter continued: “They’ve obviously had a change of coaching staff with Paul coming in and you can see straight away that their defensive stats are hugely different to that of last season. Straight away that means they are a harder team to play against because there is no guarantee of points unless you’re willing to work very hard.
“Also, everyone is aware of guys like Danny Care and Mike Brown and the threats they bring. Joe Marler is back full-time with them now and very much up and running, so there is quality running through their side and they’ll be a danger to anybody if you’re not switched on.”
Equally, Harlequins will be looking at the make-up of the Chiefs, who will stick with a largely unchanged side from that which saw off Gloucester last weekend. The pack of forwards remains untouched, while behind there are starts for Joe Simmonds at fly-half, Sam Hill in the centre, plus a Premiership debut for winger Tom O’Flaherty.
Talking up selection, Baxter explained how recent international call-ups and injuries to other players had meant he had been forced to utilise his first-team squad to the max across varying competitions.
“We’ve now got a big 10-week block of games coming up, so you’ve got to look at your options,” explained Baxter. “Yes, it was a bit of a gamble a few weeks ago taking a lot of the frontline players out for a three-week period during the Premiership Cup block, but you’ve got to be prepared to give guys a little bit of time off if you want to be performing at the tail end of the season.
“Where it has been different this year is that we’ve had a lot more guys away with internationals during the Autumn period and we’ve got other injuries to contend with. That said, it’s meant others have been asked to step up and what we’ve actually seen is a thickening out of our entire group.
“To now know the likes of Marcus Street, Billy Keast and Tom Lawday can step up is hugely encouraging, as is the fact that we’ve got good game minutes into the likes of Ollie Atkins, Wilhelm Van Der Sluys as well. It’s the same in the backs, people like Tom O’Flaherty, Sam Hill, Tom Hendrickson, they’ve all done well.
“By having all these options it’s means we don’t have to play tired or injured plyers. As I said, some may have seen what we did as being a bit of a gamble, but so far we’ve been vindicated in what we’ve done.”
CHIEFS SIDE TO FACE HARLEQUINS
15 Phil Dollman
14 Tom O’Flaherty
13 Ian Whitten
12 Sam Hill
11 Alex Cuthbert
10 Joe Simmonds
9 Nic White
1 Moray Low
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Greg Holmes
4 Mitch Lees
5 Dave Dennis
6 Dave Ewers
7 Don Armand
8 Matt Kvesic
16 Elvis Taione
17 Billy Keast
18 Marcus Street
19 Ollie Atkins
20 Tom Lawday
21 Jack Maunder
22 Gareth Steenson
23 Ollie Devoto