Chiefs side to face Saints
By Mark Stevens
Rob Baxter believes his Exeter Chiefs are coming to the boil nicely as the Gallagher Premiership play-offs loom large on the horizon.
The defending champions have - for a sixth successive season - guaranteed they will be among the final four, battling for a spot in the end of season showpiece at Twickenham on Saturday, June 26.
Unlike previous years, though, the Chiefs have yet to secure home advantage in the play-offs and that is all that matters to Baxter and his players ahead of Sunday’s trip to Northampton Saints (3pm).
Last weekend’s record-breaking 74-3 win over Newcastle Falcons meant the Chiefs not only maintained their top-two placing, but at the same time cut the gap on leaders Bristol to just three points with just two of the regular season rounds remaining.
Hot on the heels of the Devonians, however, are Sale Sharks, whose victory over the Bears last time out showcased the threat they posed. They face fellow play-off qualifiers Harlequins this evening, before travelling to Sandy Park next Saturday in a game which could well dictate who finishes where in the standings.
For Baxter, the make up of it all remains pretty simple, providing his side continue to deliver on the field. Indeed, he has called on his players to keep producing, much in the same way they did against the Falcons last weekend.
“To get to another semi-final obviously shows great consistency on our part,” said Baxter. “We’ve been in five semi-finals now, all of which have been at home, and we want to keep that run going, especially now that we can get crowds back in.
“All the time we talk to the lads about getting to these final stages, playing in semi-finals and finals, and often they are played in good conditions. They may sound a little weird after what we played in at Twickenham last year, but on the whole it’s generally played out on firm pitches, good conditions and warm temperatures, so we have to be prepared to work hard.
“At this time of the season, we talk about challenging the guys about how they perform, what levels they can hit physically, and just how much they want to do things for one another. What I saw against Newcastle last weekend, I think underlined all of those qualities.”
And it’s those previous experiences of reaching the latter stages of competitions that give Baxter renewed optimism heading into this final business end of the season.
“That experience obviously helps a lot,” he added. “But what I can also see is that the players are getting more excited and that they are taking over more and more and really starting to drive things. Just things little things at the end of training, little points they are making, they are all focus points which indicate we are in a good place.
“The biggest one for me, however, is that they look ready to run. If I see that, then I know we are in a good place. You didn’t need to be a genius last week to see that the game was done and dusted pretty much at half time, yet the guys could have gone out in the second half and tried to conserve energy. That wouldn’t have made us a better team, nor would it allow us to see what levels they could hit.
“Instead, the guys continued to work hard for one another and because of that we’ve come out of that game physically better and more prepare for what will be another hard game this weekend. As I said, when I see the guys are ready to run, it means that we can deal with any opposition game plan. If they want it to be a kick chase battle, we can cater for that. If it’s an open, attacking game, then we’ve got that in our legs - or if it’s an attritional game, again we have it in us to lock in and work hard, knowing our lungs are going to blow.”
All of those will be needed in these coming weeks, particularly this weekend against a Saints outfit who Baxter believes have nothing to lose and all to gain against the Chiefs, who they defeated at Sandy Park earlier this season.
“Right now, they are kind of in a comfortable place and they know where they are,” said Baxter. “That can be both good and bad and I’m worried the good will come out on Sunday. They know they are in the top eight and Europe next season; they can’t get top four, yet they will probably want to be that next-best side, so the pressures of ‘what ifs’ around them losing somewhat disappear.
“They’ll be looking at Sunday and thinking they can have a say in the final shake-up and they’ll be looking at doing the double on us, having won down here at Sandy Park earlier in the season. In a lot of ways, there is a lot of things for them to wrap up into a positive performance. On the flip side, we are in that top four, still in the top two, and we want to have that home semi-final. For us, the driver of making sure of that we have to make as our biggest motivation to do well.
“For lots of reasons we want to be at home in the semi-finals and I think the fact that we can be in that place where we know how things work, how comfortable we can prepare for games, and the fact that we can plat in front of friends and family, it has to be the key driver for us.
“If you look at our current group, a lot of these players have not played in those big occasions, so they know what it feels like physically and emotionally to get there and how you prepare for them. They understand what we do to make sure we put ourselves in the best position possible, but equally we have to guard against any kind of complacency just because we’ve been there before.
“If you look at the other three teams in the semi-finals, they haven’t been there for a while. For them, this is the biggest game coming up for them in a number of years. I know Bristol won in Europe last season and got to a semi-final and lost, but that will mean this year is an even bigger occasion for them. What we have to do is make sure we lockdown that the semi-final is our biggest game - and for us to do that, we have to take everything we can out of the Northampton and Sale games.”
Team news for the Chiefs sees Baxter make a handful of changes to his side from last weekend. In the pack, Ben Moon gets the nod at loosehead over Alec Hepburn, the towering frames of Jonny Gray and Jonny Hill form the engine room, while Sam Skinner and Jannes Kirsten move into the back-row with Dave Ewers and Jacques Vermeulen nursing knocks from the Falcons clash.
Behind the scrum, Ian Whitten comes into the midfield in place of Ollie Devoto, whilst Stuart Hogg’s return at full-back means Facundo Cordero takes over on the right wing from Alex Cuthbert.
CHIEFS SIDE TO FACE NORTHAMPTON SAINTS
15 Stuart Hogg
14 Facundo Cordero
13 Henry Slade
12 Ian Whitten
11 Tom O’Flaherty
10 Joe Simmonds (capt)
9 Jack Maunder
1 Ben Moon
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Harry Williams
4 Jonny Gray
5 Jonny Hill
6 Sam Skinner
7 Jannes Kirsten
8 Sam Simmonds
16 Jack Yeandle
17 Alec Hepburn
18 Marcus Street
19 Sean Lonsdale
20 Richard Capstick
21 Stu Townsend
22 Harvey Skinner
23 Ollie Devoto