Chiefs side to face Saracens
By Mark Stevens
Rob Baxter believes things are ‘bubbling nicely’ for his Exeter Chiefs side as the countdown to this month’s Gallagher Premiership play-offs starts to intensify.
With two rounds of the regular season still left to play, the Chiefs have already guaranteed themselves in record time home advantage in the last four.
Likewise, Saracens – who they face tomorrow in Round 21 at Allianz Park (3pm) – have also booked a home semi-final as they look to defend the crown they reclaimed from the Chiefs at Twickenham almost 12 months ago.
Behind the leading two, Gloucester are assured of their play-off berth, whilst a handful of others will battle it out over the final two weeks to claim that last spot. There is, however, still plenty to do – and to play for – including taking top spot, which the Chiefs can secure with victory in North London this weekend.
“Is it an important game?” asked Baxter. “Of course, it is. We are still not guaranteed top spot at this stage, so we don’t know where we will be in terms of the seedings and who we may face in the semi-finals.
“People have asked if this will act as like a dress rehearsal for the final again, but I don’t either ourselves or Saracens are thinking anything like that. First and foremost, neither of us know if we are going to get there, we’ve both got at least one very difficult fixture to get through before we can even contemplate that.”
With Baxter confirming that he will make the most of his squad options available this weekend – and Saracens likely to do similar, particularly with next week’s Champions Cup Final against Leinster on the horizon, it is likely to be two much different line-ups to that normally associated with this top of the table match-up.
“Is it a different challenge?” continued Baxter. “Yes, very much so.
“Does it make it exciting? In some ways I believe it makes it more exciting because ourselves and Saracens are probably looking for some different things out of the game. We want to get game time into our guys and it will be a similar scenario for them.
“There’s also the bragging rights that ourselves and Saracens both like playing in big games and we both like beating each other, so it’s going to be very interesting. Over the years we’ve had some fantastic fixtures, where we learn a lot, and I’m sure it’s the same for Saracens.
“At this stage of the season it’s as much about preparation, how you approach each game, and then how you move on. For me, it’s that balance of what is happening now and what is happening in the future that I think we are all getting very excited about. Right now, it feels like everyone is getting their heads around what we are expecting from one another day by day, week by week.”
The Chiefs will travel to the capital buoyed by last weekend’s hard-fought victory over play-off chasing Harlequins, a result which – on closer review – Baxter said was more impressive than he had initially thought.
Exeter's Director of Rugby said post-match at Sandy Park that he was concerned about the current state of his side’s performances, questioning that they would need to improve significantly over these final two rounds to ensure they were at peak performance for the play-offs.
“I kind of think we are actually going okay,” said Baxter. “I said to the guys this week, I probably said a few wrong things last week about us maybe getting a shock come semi-final time. In reality, I watch the way we train, the way the lads are talking to one another, and the way we are embracing things and I don’t actually think we will get a shock.
“I think come semi-final time we will actually be flying. I can see us building towards it quite nicely. What I have said, however, is let’s make sure we build 100% to the best we can. Let’s not wait for it to happen, let’s make it happen!
“As I said, I feel we are okay and that things are bubbling away nicely. I don’t want us to be flying now then drip off, I want us to get ready to explode come that semi-final and I can see that happening.”
As Baxter eluded, he will use tomorrow’s tussle to run the rule over a number of his squad. There are first-ever Premiership starts for Josh Caulfield and Richard Capstick in the pack, while the backs – headed up by skipper Gareth Steenson – see the return of Wales and British Lions winger Alex Cuthbert, as well as Max Bodilly, who makes his first league start of the season.
On the bench, young props Billy Keast and Marcus Street will hopefully get their chance to shine, as well Tongan international Onehunga Kaufusi, who is named in a Premiership squad for the first time. England Under-20s youngster Sam Maunder also provides back-up to older brother Jack at scrum-half.
Tomorrow's fixture is being screen lived on BT Sport 3, the programme starting at 2.30pm. For those unable to attend or watch the game live on TV, you can follow all the action via the Exeter Chiefs Twitter, Facebook and Instagram feeds.
CHIEFS SIDE TO FACE SARACENS
15 Phil Dollman
14 Tom O’Flaherty
13 Max Bodilly
12 Ian Whitten
11 Alex Cuthbert
10 Gareth Steenson (capt)
9 Jack Maunder
1 Ben Moon
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Tomas Francis
4 Ollie Atkins
5 Josh Caulfield
6 Sean Lonsdale
7 Richard Capstick
8 Tom Lawday
16 Elvis Taione
17 Billy Keast
18 Marcus Street
19 Toby Salmon
20 Onehunga Kaufusi
21 Sam Maunder
22 Joe Simmonds
23 Tom Hendrickson