Chiefs side to face Sale
By Mark Stevens
Rob Baxter has called on his Exeter Chiefs side to ‘finish the job’ when they play host to Sale Sharks in the final game of the regular Gallagher Premiership season tomorrow at Sandy Park (3pm).
With a place in the play-offs secured for the sixth successive season, the defending champions know if they bag at least a point against the Sharks this weekend, it will be enough to allow them to home advantage in the last four in a week’s time.
The Sharks themselves are also safe in the knowledge they will be in the play-offs, but they travel to Devon knowing they need to secure a five-point maximum against their hosts, whilst at the same time denying Baxter’s side of any reward if they are to have home advantage.
Those appear the easy scenarios, but even then the final shake-up is not fully decided. Leaders Bristol know they will be at home next weekend, but if they were to slip up against London Irish and the Chiefs prevailed, the latter would then slot into first spot and a potential meeting with the final qualifiers, Harlequins.
For Baxter, the message doesn’t need to be muddied, he will just tell his players to go out and do what they do best, which is to ultimately win a game of rugby.
“It’s an interesting scenario, but we just need to clear our heads of it all,” said the Chiefs’ Director of Rugby. “All I will say to our guys is ‘play tough’ and ‘play like Exeter Chiefs’. If we do that, then it gives us the best chance of everything and it gives us the best chance of securing the home semi-final.
“We will worry about the semi-final and where that happens next week. Right now, we have to focus on this weekend and coming up against what will be a very tough Sale side. A bit like ourselves, they are very good form. They are probably the only side with a better run of form than us right now. For months we’ve been nip and tuck with one side going ahead, then the other overtaking, so we’re used to this head-to-head scenario. All I want from our guys - and the message is pretty simple to them - is to go and ‘finish the job’.”
The second-placed Chiefs currently lie five points ahead of the Sharks, thanks in the main to last weekend’s 29-26 victory away to Northampton Saints.
Down 18-0 at the turn, Baxter’s side produced their biggest-ever fightback in the top-flight to overcome their rivals. Tries from Sam Skinner, Stuart Hogg, Stu Townsend and Ollie Devoto were the highlights of a polished second half showing, which their esteemed leader is desperate they show from the outset against the Sharks.
“I have to say fair play to the lads for the way they came through in the second half, especially after such a sticky start,” added Baxter. “That result, though, has put us in pole position and it’s given us that five-point cushion.
“Now, we have to put in that level of performance which a) gives us an opportunity to win the game or b) make sure we do enough to take something from the game, whilst at the same time denying Sale from gaining as much as they can.”
In what was a complete flip of fortunes at Franklin’s Gardens last time out, Baxter admitted the half time chat revolved around instruction and direction, rather than an all-out rant.
“I’m not a big one for screaming and shouting,” admitted Baxter. “All I said to the lads was ‘let me know if you fancy turning up today’ - that way we could do something about that. To be fair, you could see by their reaction in the second half, they did want to be there. There was no real shouting as such and the guys didn’t need too much direction, all we gave them was that bit of clarity and the ideas to go out and play hard.
“To a man, they did just that - and I have to give them credit because that was a best-ever turnaround at half time in a Premiership game. That doesn’t just happen, it’s because you have a group of players who are willing to work hard, not just for themselves, but also for one another.”
Team news for the Chiefs sees Baxter make four changes to his starting line-up with Alec Hepburn and Dave Ewers coming into the pack in place of Ben Moon and Sean Lonsdale, while behind Ollie Devoto returns in the centre ahead of Ian Whitten, whilst Alex Cuthbert gets the nod on the right wing over Facundo Cordero.
Baxter also reported that forwards Tomas Francis and Jonny Gray are also edging ever closer to a return, as is Jack Nowell who has returned to full training this week following a knee injury.
CHIEFS SIDE TO FACE SALE SHARKS
15 Stuart Hogg
14 Alex Cuthbert
13 Henry Slade
12 Ollie Devoto
11 Tom O’Flaherty
10 Joe Simmonds (capt)
9 Jack Maunder
1 Alec Hepburn
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Harry Williams
4 Sam Skinner
5 Jonny Hill
6 Dave Ewers
7 Jannes Kirsten
8 Sam Simmonds
16 Jack Yeandle
17 Ben Moon
18 Marcus Street
19 Sean Lonsdale
20 Richard Capstick
21 Stu Townsend
22 Harvey Skinner
23 Ian Whitten