Chiefs side to face Tigers
By Mark Stevens
Exeter Chiefs can dare to dream big this season in the Gallagher Premiership, so says Director of Rugby Rob Baxter.
With just five rounds of the scheduled season left to play, the Chiefs have already booked their place in the end of season play-offs, having accrued 71 points from 17 games to date.
The fact they have achieved the feat in record time is certainly notable, but Baxter has told his squad they must not only keep producing performances, but steadily build momentum for what is sure to be an action-packed finale to the 2018/19 campaign.
Tomorrow, they engage in their latest mission - an away day trip to Leicester Tigers (4:30pm) - knowing a victory at Welford Road will all but seal them home advantage in the last four next month.
Standing in their path, however, will be a Tigers outfit, who themselves have plenty to fight for at the other end of the season. In what has been a difficult campaign to date for English rugby’s most decorated club side, they head into the contest just five points adrift of basement club Newcastle Falcons.
Like the Chiefs, Geordan Murphy’s men know the importance of this Round 18 match-up, forcing Baxter to issue a timely note of caution about the threat the Tigers pose.
Baxter said: “Most people will look at the quality of the squad they have got and just go ‘when is it all going to click?’ I think lots of people across the Premiership are looking at them like that.
“At the same time, you also have to appreciate Leicester are a team who can come out fighting. It is very rare you see them stay down for very long. There have been plenty of times in the past where they’ve had international players missing, they’ve not done so well for a period, then all of a sudden you will see them go from fourth bottom to winning Premiership titles.
“They have done that plenty of times, so that is something we have to be aware of. At the same time, we don’t want to get so focused on them that we forget what we aim to do. What we have to aim to do is play some good rugby, put them under some pressure, and look to score points. When we are ambitious and look to score points, we are a decent side. But when we look to manage our way through a game and see what is there for us, that’s when we get ourselves in a little bit of a pickle.
“From our perspective, we have to talk very positively about what we want to achieve in this game, then go there and attack it, and see what we get out of it.”
It’s certainly an approach the Chiefs have used for much of the season to great effect.
Now, the Devonians must continue in much the same vein, not just tomorrow, but over the final weeks of the regular season. Indeed, Baxter wants his side to keep building performances, both in training and in games, ensuring they hit the semi-final in the best shape possible.
“These sorts of challenges should excite us,” added Baxter. “The key, however, is how we improve day by day, week by week, performance by performance.
“Once we play Leicester, there are only four games left and all of a sudden you start to realise that this season is all but there. There are four clubs who are going to play in the semi-finals and those four clubs who get there, for them the end of the season is completely in their hands. You have a couple of weeks where everything is in your hands on whether you want to become champions of England.
“We know we are already in the semi-finals, so in reality the season is already in our hands. We can now decide how good we want to be over these next five weeks. Then after that, we can decide how good we want to be in a semi-final and if we decide that, we than have the opportunity to decide how good we want to be in a final.
“As I said, we should be getting excited about that, but at the same time let’s getting excited about the day by day stuff. The most important and best seasons are the ones you don’t want to finish because they feel so good, they have a real flow about them, and we are achieving things together. That’s the kind of season we want to be building now.”
Baxter continued: “We’ve talked about it a lot recently. There are just five games left, which is a blink of an eye in a player’s career. As I’ve said to the guys, this regular season will soon be gone, so they’ve got to make the most of these opportunities to play in big games, like playing at Welford Road this weekend.
“We have some big games coming up at home too, so we should really enjoy taking part and enjoying every single minute of it to get better. By doing that, it will give us our best chance of winning a semi-final and, hopefully, our best chance of being competitive in the final.”
Victorious last time out against Bath at Sandy Park, Baxter names an unchanged back division for tomorrow’s clash. That means fly-half Joe Simmonds, a late call-up for that game, keeps his place with Gareth Steenson still sidelined with a calf problem.
In the pack, Baxter is forced to do without locks Jonny Hill, Mitch Lees and Sam Skinner due to knocks, so Ollie Atkins comes into the engine room alongside Aussie compatriot Dave Dennis.
On the bench, England international Ben Moon returns to first-team duty after a shoulder injury, Sean Lonsdale and Richard Capstick offer back-up at both lock and in the back-row, while Ian Whitten also returns to the fray.
CHIEFS SIDE TO FACE LEICESTER TIGERS
15 Santiago Cordero
14 Jack Nowell
13 Henry Slade
12 Ollie Devoto
11 Olly Woodburn
10 Joe Simmonds
9 Nic White
1 Alec Hepburn
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Harry Williams
4 Dave Dennis
5 Ollie Atkins
6 Dave Ewers
7 Don Armand
8 Matt Kvesic
16 Luke Cowan-Dickie
17 Ben Moon
18 Tomas Francis
19 Sean Lonsdale
20 Richard Capstick
21 Jack Maunder
22 Sam Hill
23 Ian Whitten