Chiefs side to face Worcester
WATCH ALI HEPHER'S PRE-MATCH INTERVIEW HERE
By Mark Stevens
It’s been a near perfect return to Gallagher Premiership action for the Exeter Chiefs, but head coach Ali Hepher insists the hard work must continue, starting with the visit of Worcester Warriors to Sandy Park on Sunday (3pm).
The table-topping Chiefs have resumed top-flight action with a bang, claiming bonus point victories over Leicester Tigers and Sale Sharks, as well as claiming a last-gasp victory over second-placed Bristol Bears on Tuesday evening.
That latest triumph helped stretch their lead at the summit to 11 points and Hepher is keen that his players continue to keep the pedal down as they build towards what could be an exciting conclusion to this prolonged 2019/20 season.
“It’s another big test for us at the weekend,” warned Hepher. “We know every side is gunning for wins as it’s an important stage in the season. Obviously, we have come through the last few games well - and we’ve used the squad well and they’ve bonded together to get the results we wanted.
“As coaches we’re hugely pleased with the performances, but equally we have to move on because it’s another massive game this weekend against Worcester.”
Having stuck with a largely unchanged 23 for the opening two games, the Chiefs rang the changes for their midweek trip to Ashton Gate. Only winger Olly Woodburn remained in the starting line-up from the Sale game, but the fresh stock truly delivered as the visitors claimed a 25-22 victory.
“We we’re really pleased with the guys on Tuesday,” added Hepher. “It was great to see some of the young lads come off the bench for their debuts at this level. What it showed was we could make changes and guys could clearly cope with it all. Moving forward, the aim is to keep improving them and making them shine even more.
“Equally, there were some of the older heads who again stepped up and put in a top-quality performance. We’ve seen them deliver like that over a number of years, but it was great to see them respond to the challenge.”
Certainly, Tuesday’s squad stepped up to the mark, but so too have the other players who have featured previously. Many of them will again take to the field on Sunday as the Chiefs look to edge ever closer to securing that all-important home advantage in the play-offs.
“Every game we play is knocking us that little bit further forward,” continued Hepher. “As a group, it’s important we don’t look too far ahead, but the players know there is huge competition for places right know and they’re aware that if they don’t perform, their place could easily slip away and they may well miss out on those big games in the future.
“What we’ve said is we want them to keep playing and to keep challenging themselves each week.”
Standing in their way on Sunday, however, will be a Worcester outfit who, having lost their opening two games since restart against Gloucester and Wasps, bounced back on Wednesday with a powerful home win over Harlequins.
Hepher and the Exeter coaches have used the time since to study that performance, as well as revisit past performances against the Midlanders, to devise what they hope will be a winning game plan.
“Worcester are a talented side, full of guys who are keen to push on,” warned Hepher. “They’ve also got a new coaching group in place and, if you remember, they came here two years ago and beat us. We’re under no illusions about how hard Sunday will be, so we have to make sure we are 100% committed, 100% focused, and in the right mindset to produce a big performance.
“If we do all that and a team still beat us, we can accept that. It’s when we drop our standards that it becomes a bit of a concern. As I said, what we have to make sure is we put a performance out there that not only challenges ourselves, but also challenges Worcester, after which we hopefully get the points.”
Not surprisingly, the Chiefs have changed their complete starting line-up for Sunday’s clash. The biggest news is the introduction of England and British Lions winger Jack Nowell for the first time since restart. He is joined in a stellar back-line, which also includes the likes of Stuart Hogg, Alex Cuthbert, Henry Slade and skipper Joe Simmonds.
Up front, it’s an all-England front-row of Ben Moon, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Harry Williams, while behind recent recruit Jonny Gray gets another home start alongside Jonny Hill in the Exeter engine room. The pack is completed with the all-action trio of Dave Ewers, Jacques Vermeulen and Sam Simmonds.
On the bench, Bristol match winner Billy Keast is included, as are fellow youngsters Jack Innard, Marcus Street, Richard Capstick and Harvey Skinner.
CHIEFS SIDE TO FACE WORCESTER WARRIORS
15 Stuart Hogg
14 Jack Nowell
13 Henry Slade
12 Ian Whitten
11 Alex Cuthbert
10 Joe Simmonds (capt)
9 Jack Maunder
1 Ben Moon
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Harry Williams
4 Jonny Gray
5 Jonny Hill
6 Dave Ewers
7 Jacques Vermeulen
8 Sam Simmonds
16 Jack Innard
17 Billy Keast
18 Marcus Street
19 Will Witty
20 Richard Capstick
21 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne
22 Harvey Skinner
23 Tom Hendrickson