Chiefs side to face Saints
By Mark Stevens
Exeter Chiefs Director of Rugby, Rob Baxter, says his players will leave ‘no stone unturned’ as they target success both in the Gallagher Premiership and the Heineken Champions Cup between now and the end of the season.
In what has been an impressive restart to top-flight action for the Chiefs, Baxter has watched on with glowing satisfaction as his players have quietly gone about their business.
Victories over Leicester Tigers, Sale Sharks, Bristol Bears and, more recently, Worcester Warriors has seen the Devonians not only cement their position at the top of the Premiership, but at the same time extend their advantage over their rivals to 14 points with just five rounds of the regular season remaining.
Next up for the Chiefs is tomorrow’s trip to Northampton Saints, a side who have struggled to find form since action resumed last month following the lifting of lockdown.
The Saints have pocketed just one win in four on their return, but Baxter knows from past experience that a trip to Franklin’s Gardens is always challenging and he has warned his players to prepare for battle ahead of this Round 18 showdown.
“I think it’s a really interesting challenge for us,” he said. “Obviously, we’ve been going well and Northampton have had a bit of a mixed bag since we all came back. Chris Boyd has come out this week and said they have to change something, simply because they need to start winning games of rugby again.
“Whether that means we end up running into what you’d call their full-strength side - or we end up running into a mix-and-match side, we just don’t know what is coming. In a way, that’s a nice challenge for us in itself, because we feel we will be taking a good team up there and one which has shown previously that it can perform extremely well.
“As I’ve said, we’re looking forward to these games coming thick and fast. The guys have trained well again this week and now we’re looking forward to getting up there and challenging ourselves to be as good as we can be.”
Certainly, the Chiefs have shown so far that they have hit the ground running, but Baxter its keen for individuals and the team as a whole to keep building as the season draws towards an exciting climax.
“Our boys have been fantastic,” continued Baxter. “The results we’ve had have been based on the hard work the players have been willing to put in. It started with the work they put in during lockdown, it continued through Stage One and Stage Two training, and then from minute one in every game we’ve played so far.
“For me, that’s the most satisfying thing of all. The guys have shown they are willing to work hard to win games now, but they also know they need to improve because in a nine-game format like this, you have to have to improve even further if you want to be involved in semi-finals and finals.”
Having already played four fixtures in a fortnight, the hectic schedule is set to continue for all the Premiership clubs over the next week or so. After tomorrow night’s game, the Chiefs welcome Gloucester to Sandy Park on Wednesday, after which they travel to rivals Saracens on Sunday week.
“Where we are fortunate is that we now have lots of players who have played in big games,” explained Baxter. “A lot of them have played in some great wins over the last few years and they’ve also experienced the odd tough loss. As a group, I think they are all using those experiences as positive drivers to be better, not just individually, but collectively as well.
“Every one of them wants to be better than they were last week and the week before, which is fantastic. As a group, you can see they are leaving no stones unturned in wanting to improve and wanting to get the best out of one another. The best way of doing that, however, is preparing as best you can and then going out and performing when you are in a game.
“As I’ve said to the lads, it’s not always the result which is the most important factor for me. It’s often how you improve as a player and as a team which is more important and that’s very much the approach we must take into Northampton. I want us to be a better group of players by the time we come through this next block.
“Over the Northampton, Gloucester and Saracens games, we need to come out that being a really strong, tough, well-prepared unit, who are ready to go into a European quarter-final then, hopefully, a semi-final, then rolling into what will be some huge knockout fixtures as the Premiership comes to a conclusion.”
Certainly, the ruthless edge of this current crop was clear to see during Sunday’s game against Worcester where, even though they had scored four tries in the opening 30 minutes, they refused to loosen their vice-like grip on the Warriors.
“I think that’s what the guys are really understanding,” continued Baxter. “They are realising that they can’t let things slip by. If they do, then you don’t get that opportunity again to use those minutes you need to prepare, to try things, or to develop skills.Minutes at this level are precious and I think we understand fully the importance of maximising those opportunities as best we can.”
As he has done in the past fortnight, Baxter has again utilised his squad to the maximum, opting to go with a completely different starting line-up to that which faced the Warriors.
That means 14 of those who started against Bristol Bears take to the field again this time round. Club captain Jack Yeandle heads up a powerful pack that includes international stars such as Alec Hepburn, Tomas Francis, Dave Dennis, Sam Skinner and Don Armand; while behind Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Gareth Steenson will direct operations from half-back and there is another start in the midfield for the long-serving Phil Dollman.
The sole change comes in the back three where Corey Baldwin, a summer signing from the Scarlets, gets his first Chiefs appearance lining up alongside Tom O’Flaherty and fellow newcomer Josh Hodge.
CHIEFS SIDE TO FACE NORTHAMPTON SAINTS
15 Josh Hodge
14 Tom O’Flaherty
13 Phil Dollman
12 Tom Hendrickson
11 Corey Baldwin
10 Gareth Steenson
9 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne
1 Alec Hepburn
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Tomas Francis
4 Dave Dennis
5 Sam Skinner
6 Jannes Kirsten
7 Sean Lonsdale
8 Don Armand
16 Jack Innard
17 Billy Keast
18 Alfie Petch
19 Tom Price
20 Richard Capstick
21 Joe Snow
22 Harvey Skinner
23 Tom Wyatt