Chiefs side to face Saracens
By Mark Stevens
Rob Baxter will give youth its chance as Exeter Chiefs ready themselves for Sunday’s Gallagher Premiership trip to rivals Saracens (4:30pm).
Having seen his side guarantee themselves of a fifth successive play-off place, the Chiefs need just a solitary point to ensure they will have home advantage when it comes to the last four showdowns next month.
Wednesday’s night 35-22 victory over Gloucester made it six wins from as many games for the Devonians since restart, but it wasn’t quite the same vintage form that has seen them power past Leicester Tigers, Sale Sharks, Bristol Bears, Worcester Warriors and Northampton Saints.
Nonetheless, their five-point haul against the Cherry & Whites ensured more maximum reward for the table-toppers, who Baxter admits will now have one eye focused on next week’s Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final at home to the Saints.
“Wednesday’s win has pretty much put us, I know it’s not quite mathematically done, but we’re very close to securing that home semi-final,” said Baxter. “I think we need one more match point or for teams below us to make up a huge points difference over these last few games.
“Again, I’ve said it before, I can’t credit the players enough for what they have achieved so far. The results and the points we’ve collected, it’s allowed us now to go fast into Sunday’s game against Saracens with a nice, fresh, enthusiastic group - and with a clear mindset of what we want to achieve. Personally, I’m really looking forward to the game and I think the players are as well.”
Although not quite at their free-flowing best in midweek, the Chiefs still had too much in their performance to see off their rivals and secure a first-ever league double over Gloucester.
“That’s the funny thing about sport sometimes,” added Baxter. “Some days you can have those incredible moments and on other days you have those frustrating moments. All of that can come within a week, using the same group of players, who are doing the same things, but what’s important is that when you do have one of those other days, you still have enough in your game to stand together and have enough fight to win the game.
“That is what we had against what was a strong and determined Gloucester side, who were willing to lay it on the line, because they had nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
The five-try victory, however, was more than enough and although Baxter, his coaches and his players all felt a little frustrated with aspects of their play, there appears little to distract the Chiefs in their quest to attack the remainder of the season on two fronts.
“I know the lads were frustrated, more so than us as coaches,” explained Baxter. ‘But, coaching wise, you do know at some stage there will be a period where players will look to draw breath and that’s what they kind of did on Wednesday.
“Yes, we all may feel frustrated with parts of our game - and Gloucester will probably feel okay about how they played, but at the end of the day we got five points and they got nothing. Looking at it all, I don’t mind it being like that. We know we’ve got some big targets ahead of us, but that result allows us to be be ready not just for Sunday, but we can also start really planning for the Northampton game and the chance to potentially get into a European semi-final.”
As expected, Baxter is not willing to risk many of his frontline stars, just a week out from their Champions Cup clash. Instead, it will be a youthful Chiefs squad that heads to the capital to tackle last season’s Premiership champions.
“It’s a changed-up squad, which we have to do with the rules and regulations, but also with an eye to next week as well,” commented Baxter. “For this group, and I’ve re-iterated it to all the players this week, don’t go thinking there is ever a day to have a day off. For any player, you always have that opportunity too take the next step in your career, so you have to take those opportunities to show other players and coaching staff that you are the guy for the moment - and you are guy willing to stand up in really tough circumstances.
“I know this may sound off, but it’s easy for someone to come into the first team for a debut when the team is purring and everything is clicking. You can easily just fill your role when it’s like that. What I want to see is when you have to stand up and be a man, especially when things are getting tough, I want that guy to stand up and fight for the whole 80 minutes because that is the time to show the great qualities you possess.”
Team news for the Chiefs sees Baxter go with a completely different starting XV from that of midweek. England International Don Armand skippers the side from No.8 and he will be joined in the pack by England Under-20s youngster Alfie Petch, who is set to make his first-ever Premiership start.
Behind them, Argentinian winger Facundo Cordero, centre Tom Wyatt and half-backs Joe Snow and Harvey Skinner, also get their maiden starts, teaming up in a back division which also includes the evergreen Phil Dollman at full-back.
On the bench, University of Exeter alumni Matt Johnson, Will Yarnell and Luke Mehson all get their first call-ups into a Premiership squad, as does Aussie playmaker Jack Walsh, prop James Kenny and back-row forward Aaron Hinkley.
CHIEFS SIDE TO FACE SARACENS
15 Phil Dollman
14 Josh Hodge
13 Corey Baldwin
12 Tom Wyatt
11 Facundo Cordero
10 Harvey Skinner
9 Joe Snow
1 Billy Keast
2 Jack Innard
3 Alfie Petch
4 Will Witty
5 Tom Price
6 Sean Lonsdale
7 Richard Capstick
8 Don Armand (capt)
16 Jordon Poole
17 James Kenny
18 Matt Johnson
19 Dave Dennis
20 Aaron Hinkley
21 Will Yarnell
22 Jack Walsh
23 Luke Mehson