Chiefs side to face Wasps
By Mark Stevens
After the year that was, so the Exeter Chiefs head into 2021 looking to maintain their position as the Gallagher Premiership’s leading lights.
Rob Baxter’s side made the most of a disrupted 2020, claiming not only a second Premiership title, but also a first-ever European Champions Cup crown.
They were - to all extent and purpose - the bright spark to come out of a challenging 12 months in which off-field matters stole the main headlines.
In a year when there was little reason for cheer, Devon’s finest somehow managed to bring a glimmer of hope to many. Having rounded off 2020 with a fourth successive bonus point win in the top-flight against Gloucester, now the Chiefs begin 2021 with a testing away-day assignment against Wasps at the Ricoh Arena tomorrow (2pm).
It represents the first acid test of the New Year for the Chiefs who, so far this season, have picked up from where they left off last term which, incidentally, was their Premiership Rugby Final triumph over Wasps at Twickenham back in October.
On that occasion, the Chiefs edged the end of season showpiece, 19-13, to seal a historic double for the Devonians, who are expecting a response of sorts from Lee Blackett’s men this weekend in the wake of that torment at English Rugby HQ.
“It’s a very exciting game for us,” said Baxter, who earlier this week was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List. “Wasps are on good form and they are coming into this game on the back of a very good win up at Sale last weekend. Nobody appreciates more than me how difficult it is to win up at Sale, so I am sure they will have been delighted with that win.
“Looking at them this week, you can see they are enjoying what they are doing and that Lee has really got them buzzing. I think it’s a fantastic challenge for us, made all the better because I am sure they will be looking for a spot of revenge after the final last season; whilst for us, we just want to continue to move forward and put the recent disruptions behind us.”
Baxter’s comments relate to the pre-Christmas upheaval caused by an outbreak of Covid-19 amongst the playing side that forced the cancellation of their Champions Cup clash with Toulouse - and also meant Baxter was sweating until late on Christmas Eve to see if his team would play their Boxing Day clash with Gloucester.
Thankfully, the outbreak was contained swiftly within the club ranks and following additional testing carried out in the build-up to the Gloucester game, the Chiefs were able to take to the field over the festive period, eventually adding the Cherry & Whites to their list of seasonal victories.
“This week has been a lot easier, obviously,” said Baxter. “That said, I have to give a great deal of credit to no only the medical staff, but the players and the other staff who quickly got hold of things in a professional manner. Adrian Harris, our medical lead, was outstanding and he put into place a professional plan, where we didn’t mess about, and were able to get everything in place in accordance with Public Health England in terms of re-testing, so that we could play against Gloucester.
“As I said, I have to give huge credit to everyone involved, because in the end it allowed us to play what was a very tough game against Gloucester. For some of the players involved that day, that was their first involvement that week, yet they came in and put in a performance in what was a very tough and physical game.
“What I liked especially was how the guys were willing to fight for everything, especially when we had to weather a few storms. I thought they fought very well at times then, when we got down the other end of the field, we were very clinical in what we did. That was kind of the tale of the game and it allowed us to pick up the four tries and what was a very good bonus point in the end.”
Exeter’s victory, however, did come at some cost with Scottish skipper Stuart Hogg hobbling out of the action with a tight hamstring, whilst South African powerhouse Jannes Kirsten picked up a nasty facial injury. Both miss tomorrow’s trip to the Ricoh, whilst the likes of Luke Cowan-Dickie, Harry Williams, Jonny Gray, Jonny Hill, Sam Skinner and Henry Slade are all rested following their exertions in the Autumn Nations Cup.
Even without such talent, the Chiefs are still able to parade a formidable looking squad, which includes Academy youngsters Marcus Street and Richard Capstick in the pack alongside the recalled Alec Hepburn, Jack Yeandle, Will Witty and Don Armand. Behind them, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne makes his first league start of the season at scrum-half, whilst Hogg’s absence means a re-jig of the back division with Tom O’Flaherty shunting into the anchor role; Ian Whitten switching to the wing; whilst Tom Hendrickson is promoted from the bench to partner Ollie Devoto in the centre.
CHIEFS SIDE TO FACE WASPS
15 Tom O’Flaherty
14 Olly Woodburn
13 Tom Hendrickson
12 Ollie Devoto
11 Ian Whitten
10 Joe Simmonds MBE
9 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne
1 Alec Hepburn
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Marcus Street
4 Will Witty
5 Don Armand
6 Dave Ewers
7 Richard Capstick
8 Sam Simmonds
16 Jack Innard
17 James Kenny
18 Tomas Francis
19 Tom Price
20 Rus Tuima
21 Jack Maunder
22 Harvey Skinner
23 Josh Hodge