Chiefs side to face Harlequins
By Mark Stevens
Rob Baxter says his Exeter Chiefs can ill afford to take their foot off the pedal, even though their place in next month’s Gallagher Premiership play-offs has already been assured.
Having booked their last four spot in record time with victory at Leicester Tigers earlier this month, a week later Devon’s finest were then picked off on home turf by Wasps, who became the first side in 14 months to win a league game at fortress Sandy Park.
Baxter felt that result acted as a timely reminder to his players of what can occur if they let their standards drop – and he says a repeat showing against visiting Harlequins tomorrow (2pm) could easily result in further woe.
“There is a reality that we let ourselves down against Wasps,” said the Chiefs’ Director of Rugby. “A week after cementing that semi-final place with a good win up at Leicester, without doubt we took our foot off the pedal against Wasps.
“I understand that and there are loads of reasons for it. If you qualify for the biggest thing you can achieve at this stage of the season, the week after – for whatever reason – isn’t going to feel as big as it should. That’s what happened against Wasps, but now we must use that as a little bit of a reminder to say the best way we can move forward is to prepare well every day, and use these final three games for what they are, which is they are precious opportunities to challenge ourselves to be better.
“For me it’s all pretty simple because I look at it and say it’s those guys who challenge themselves every week to be better players who will ultimately be the best players you want in the semi-final and, potentially, the final. That’s very much what we have reminded the players about this week, stating that their performances between then and now, both in training and in games, are what really matters.”
Certainly, the Chiefs will come into tomorrow’s tussle with their energy levels re-charged having had the Easter weekend off. Harlequins, on the other hand, were in Challenge Cup semi-final action, eventually going down narrowly to French giants Clermont Auvergne at the Stade Marcel Michelin.
Baxter admitted it was somewhat ‘bitter sweet’ having no game last weekend, but he hopes the break will have done his players the world of good and that they can really challenge the Londoners in Round 20 this weekend.
“I’m less concerned what the opposition feel about us, instead I’m more concerned about how we feel about ourselves, how good a position we feel we can put ourselves in, and how strongly we prepare to be the best team we can be,” added Baxter.
“The most important thing is the teams that stay the most successful are the teams that are always striving to be better and that’s what we have got to make sure we want to achieve. Either we want to be better next week than we are now or we don’t – and a huge part of us getting better next week is how we perform against Harlequins.”
Under new Head Coach Paul Gustard, Harlequins have certainly improved on recent years and their current fourth-placed standing underlines the work the former England defence coach has put in during his maiden season at The Stoop.
Despite recent form – the visitors have won just once in their last six games – Baxter is wary of the threat posed by Gustard’s side.
“They may not have been getting the results they wanted, but they are not going too far wrong,” said Baxter. “If you look at a lot of those results, they have all been pretty close, playing against some very tough teams. They pushed Clermont close last week over in France, it was the same against Saracens, so we know what they are all about.
“They are a bit like us, if they play at the top of their game, they can be very dangerous. If you drop off your percentages against them, they’ll definitely hurt you. What I see when I look at them is a team who have England props in their front-row, England back-row forwards and a number of England backs, so there are lots of threats out on that field.
“What I’ve said to our lads is unless we are prepared to work hard to be at our best, they are a team who can come here and beat us. It happened against Wasps in the last game and Quins’ can do that if we let ourselves down. I’m not overly focused on them and what they can do, I’m focusing more on making sure we can deliver that quality performance we want.”
Selection-wise, Baxter has had a mixture of good and bad news in terms of personnel available. International stars Santiago Cordero, Jack Nowell, Don Armand and Luke Cowan-Dickie all sit out tomorrow’s game, but the Chiefs are boosted by the return of Dave Dennis and Jonny Hill up front, whilst Tom O’Flaherty and Phil Dollman are added to the back division.
On the bench, Gareth Steenson has overcome a calf problem to reclaim his place in the match-day 23, where he will be joined by Sam Hill, who should he come onto the field, will be making his 100th Premiership appearance for the Chiefs.
A reminder to supporters that tomorrow’s game is officially SOLD OUT. Match sponsor for the game is St James's Place Wealth Management.
CHIEFS SIDE TO FACE HARLEQUINS
15 Phil Dollman
14 Tom O’Flaherty
13 Henry Slade
12 Ollie Devoto
11 Olly Woodburn
10 Joe Simmonds
9 Nic White
1 Alec Hepburn
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Harry Williams
4 Dave Dennis
5 Jonny Hill
6 Dave Ewers
7 Sean Lonsdale
8 Matt Kvesic
16 Elvis Taione
17 Ben Moon
18 Tomas Francis
19 Ollie Atkins
20 Richard Capstick
21 Jack Maunder
22 Gareth Steenson
23 Sam Hill