Chiefs side to face Saracens
By Mark Stevens
Prep done, turn the heat up, then simply sit back and wait for your festive feast to be served up!
Well, tomorrow’s the Gallagher Premiership’s top two sides will tuck into one another in the last game of a memorable 2018 at Sandy Park.
Table-topping Saracens arrive in Devon not only looking to preserve their current two-point lead at the summit, but a 22-game unbeaten run that stretches back to their quarter-final defeat at the hands of Leinster in April.
Since then, Mark McCall’s side have yet to taste defeat, producing an impressive sequence of results that has yielded great rewards, including lifting the Premiership title for the fourth time in May against this weekend’s hosts, Exeter Chiefs.
Undone by the Londoners for the second time in three years in the end of season showpiece at Twickenham, it was a bitter pill to swallow for Rob Baxter and his team, who had ended last season’s regular season top of the pile for the first time, some eight points clear of next-best Saracens.
For some time, however, the two clubs have been the stand-out sides in English rugby’s top tier. Often with little to choose between either of them, this latest match-up is sure to deliver another ‘Christmas Cracker’.
And with both sides fresh from success in last weekend’s fourth round of Champions Cup action in Europe, Chiefs head coach Ali Hepher believes the stage is set for another epic tussle between the two rivals.
“Saturday will be 100 per cent from both sides,” he said. “Both of us will be going full bore at it. It will be very physical and very tactical, but it’s something we are all excited about. For us, it will be a good marker to see where we are at in terms of our performance levels, our general work ethic and how we react in those big-game moments.”
Exeter’s victory at Gloucester last time out brought to a halt the disappointment of successive losses to Harlequins in the Premiership and Gloucester in the Champions Cup. The latter result - at Sandy Park - was the first time the Chiefs had been downed on their own patch since February.
In the aftermath of that loss, the Chiefs coaches and players discussed in detail some areas of concern, and the response was emphatic with the Devonians claiming all five points at Kingsholm last time out.
Now, Hepher is calling for more of the same, if not more, against a Saracens outfit that is packed with quality, experience and an outstanding know-how of what it takes to be successful.
“Guys and teams who are at the top are always looking to move forward,” said Hepher. “The game is evolving all the time and if you stick where you are at, you are going to go backwards pretty quickly. In the case of ourselves and Saracens, both of us have been in and around the top of the division for a while, Saracens even more than us.
“For that, you have to give them a lot of credit. They have a fantastic coaching team and players who are prepared to drive themselves on and on. Equally, we are the same here. We have driven ourselves up the league over the years and we’re in a good position. That said, we have to keep pushing forward, we can’t afford to sit back. We need to be better, not just at this time, but in the future as well.
“Performances like last week [at Gloucester] are what we are about. Together, we’re all working incredibly hard to get results and push us on. At the end of the day, rugby is pretty simple. If you’re willing to work hard, you get out what you put in. Having watched the footage of a few weeks ago, there were certain areas where we didn’t feel we working hard enough in.
“That said, credit to the players because in the space of a week, they turned it round and you saw what effort they put in. That was no fluke win, that was a hard-fought, gutsy performance, which in the end got us what was a very deserved victory on the night.”
And the Chiefs hope that display can be the foundation for an equally strong showing against Saracens, who have not won in Devon since 2016.
Team news for the home side is that Director of Rugby Rob Baxter sticks largely with the same personnel who impressed at Kingsholm. The sole change to the starting line-up sees Matt Kvesic come in at No.8 in place of Tom Lawday, who drops to the bench.
Lawday will be joined in the replacements by fit-again hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie and scrum-half Nic White, who was forced to miss last week’s game with a foot issue.
CHIEFS SIDE TO FACE SARACENS
15 Joe Simmonds
14 Santiago Cordero
13 Ian Whitten
12 Sam Hill
11 Tom O’Flaherty
10 Gareth Steenson
9 Jack Maunder
1 Alec Hepburn
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Tomas Francis
4 Dave Dennis
5 Sam Skinner
6 Sean Lonsdale
7 Don Armand
8 Matt Kvesic
16 Luke Cowan-Dickie
17 Ben Moon
18 Harry Williams
19 Mitch Lees
20 Tom Lawday
21 Nic White
22 Ollie Devoto
23 Phil Dollman