Chiefs side to face Saints
By Mark Stevens
Rob Baxter has challenged his Exeter Chiefs side to back up last weekend’s Gallagher Premiership win over Saracens with an equally powerful showing at Northampton’s Franklin’s Gardens tomorrow (7:45pm)
Exeter’s 31-13 victory over the defending champions not only saw them move back to the summit of the division, but it also brought to an end a 22-game unbeaten run for the Londoners.
In a season’s best showing from the Devonians, not only did they secure maximum reward for their efforts, but they showcased a series of qualities that Baxter believes can help to drive them forward over the remainder of the season.
The acid test, however, will be how they now back that display up, starting with their clash against the Saints in what will be their final game of a memorable 2018.
“Saturday was a good performance, one that we needed, and one that will give us some confidence going forward,” said Baxter. “I think what it showed, however, is that we can actually face any team down on our day and go well.To do well, though, you have to do a lot of things well and that’s what we did at the weekend.
"The good thing for as coaches looking back at the game is that we know we weren’t faultless. There were still areas we can work on. Some of the crispness to our handling wasn’t always great, and the scrum went back and forth at times in the game. The good thing, however, was that we were prepared to work hard, stick at things, not get dented and not worry about mistakes, and those are some great qualities to have in a side.”
A lot of those qualities were outlined to the Chiefs squad in the immediate aftermath of the Saracens victory, but Baxter said it was important that his side did not dwell too long on that triumph, instead reverting their attentions to getting the game plan in place for tomorrow’s test, which marks the halfway stage of the league season.
“We tried to get the Saracens game signed off before Christmas,” explained the Chiefs Director of Rugby. ‘We chatted after the game and we did the same on Sunday down at the Marines camp in Lympstone, where we got all the reviews, the recovery and the chat about the game out of the way so that we could concentrate fully on Northampton.
“I guess what the review showed to the players is that what we do, if we do it well and we work hard at it, then we can beat most teams. What I hope now is that we can use those qualities to drive us forward on Friday. If we go to Northampton thinking we’ve beaten Saracens and we draw breath, then we’ll probably get beaten as that’s how it works in the Premiership. What we have to do is be willing to work as hard as we did against Saracens.”
Last Saturday’s victory was in stark contrast to Exeter’s last home performance where they came unstuck to Gloucester in the Heineken Champions Cup. That was a first home defeat since February for the Chiefs, but they were able to rectify matters within days, producing success at Kingsholm in the European return, before then downing Saracens in equally impressive fashion.
“I think what the last few weeks have shown his that a big part of sport is about the emotional battle,” added Baxter. “If you think about things, we’ve gone from people telling us we were in a min crisis because we lost to Gloucester, then all of a sudden people are saying Exeter back on form because of these last two wins.
“In truth, it’s all been spaced apart by a just a few training days - and that’s the battle we have to win first and foremost against Northampton. They’ve had a decent win travelling away to Worcester, a side who have been playing very well, and we’ve had a decent win ourselves. Now it’s a case of who can mentally and emotionally refresh first - and who take that emotion and passion into the game on Friday, because that is going to be the most important factor.
“What we need to do is go to Northampton with the right mindset because people soon forget about good performances if you don’t back them up. That’s the message we’ve been driving home this week and hopefully the guys will follow that through.”
Not surprisingly, Baxter sticks with a largely unchanged side for the game. In the pack, England props Ben Moon and Harry Williams will pack down alongside Tongan hooker Elvis Taione, while Mitch Lees comes into the second row in place of Dave Dennis. Behind, Ollie Devoto gets the nod in the centre alongside Ian Whitten in the sole change to the back division.
On the bench, the Chiefs are boosted with the return to fitness of lock Jonny Hill and centre Henry Slade, while there is plenty of back-up in the form of Luke Cowan-Dickie, Alec Hepburn, Tomas Francis, Tom Lawday, Nic White and Phil Dollman.
CHIEFS SIDE TO FACE NORTHAMPTON SAINTS
15 Joe Simmonds
14 Santiago Cordero
13 Ian Whitten
12 Ollie Devoto
11 Tom O’Flaherty
10 Gareth Steenson (capt)
9 Jack Maunder
1 Ben Moon
2 Elvis Taione
3 Harry Williams
4 Mitch Lees
5 Sam Skinner
6 Sean Lonsdale
7 Don Armand
8 Matt Kvesic
16 Luke Cowan-Dickie
17 Alec Hepburn
18 Tomas Francis
19 Jonny Hill
20 Tom Lawday
21 Nic White
22 Henry Slade
23 Phil Dollman