Chiefs team to face Tigers
By Mark Stevens
The waiting is almost over. Gallagher Premiership Rugby returns to Sandy Park, but not quite how all of us remember it.
For the Exeter Chiefs, it’s been a long wait - 161 days to be precise - for them to restart a campaign which, to date, has produced a formula that has not only driven them to the summit of English rugby’s top flight, but has also positioned them nicely in the last eight of Europe’s Champions Cup.
Tomorrow, Rob Baxter’s squad return to competitive action at Sandy Park (2pm) looking to pick up from where they left off back in early March. On that occasion, Westcountry rivals Bath were brushed aside by a powerful display from the ‘Men in Black’.
The 57-20 victory underlined the class of the Chiefs, who this weekend will now brace themselves for the threat of Leicester Tigers. Under the guidance of new head coach, Steve Borthwick, it will be interesting to see what changes the former England forwards coach will have made since taking charge at Welford Road.
Baxter, the Chiefs’ Director of Rugby, like many of us is unsure as to what threat the Tigers will pose. However, he knows whatever challenge comes from the most decorated team in the English game, it will be a ‘significant’ one.
“I don’t think Leicester will try and change their DNA too much,” he said. “It’s more of a case that I think they will try and rediscover it. Let’s not forget, Leicester have won a lot of competitions and they’ve been a very strong club for a very long time, so I think there ethos and what they are all about will still remain relatively strong.
“Geordy Murphy [Director of Rugby] is still there and Steve Borthwick knows what the strengths and weaknesses of Leicester have been over a number of years. I don’t think in that sense they will change too much.
“The one thing that might make Leicester different to others sides is that we simply don’t know if they are looking more long-term and that this period will be used as part of a bigger, rebuilding and change process. They may well choose to use this block of games to have those week-by-week experiences, see players compete for 80 minutes, and see where they can develop hence and enhance themselves as a side.
“Like I said, I don’t know how or what they will do because I’ve not been part of their training and I have been part of the processes they have been going through recently. Therefore, all we can do is prepare ourselves as best we can and look at what we know have been the threats of Leicester in the past, as well as prepare ourselves to be as good as we can when we have the ball and influence what we can bring to the game.”
Certainly, the Chiefs - who have added eight new faces since their last fixture - have done all they can in terms of preparation for tomorrow’s restart. As well as working their way through the various stages of returning to training, more recently two in-house fixtures have allowed Baxter to get his squad some much-needed game-time experience.
“As it is right now, we feel we are well set,” added Baxter. “The players look good, they’ve trained incredibly hard and I like what I see. However, the proof of the pudding will in in our performance at the weekend. Personally, I don’t think we could have done much more from where we are now.”
Indeed, just 10 weekends lie between tomorrow’s start date and that of the 2020 Premiership Final. Baxter and his squad have been in the last four showpiece events, winning their maiden title in 2017. Not surprisingly, they would love to return to HQ once more, but the hard work starts in earnest with tomorrow’ clash against the Tigers.
“When we start this weekend, it will be ten weekends before two teams are going to be playing in the Premiership final,” continued Baxter. “Obviously, we want of those teams to be us, but other clubs want it to be them as well.
“So, are we going to embrace this period more than anybody else?
“Those are the decisions which are in our hands. If as a player or as a coach you can’t get excited about that, then there is probably something wrong with you. If all you want to see are the problems, how many games of rugby are to be played, and what are the repercussions of this and repercussions of that, if that’s all you want to talk about, you’ll never see what it is. I see this as a fantastic opportunity to go out and achieve something that a team will never achieve again.
“I hope a team will never have to win a season like we’ve had this year - and I hope we don’t have another extended period away from rugby like we’ve had. Some guys here will have the experience of playing a Premiership game in front of zero crowd. Obviously, you don’t want that to happen again, but it’s still an experience you can say you’ve had, you’ve triumphed over, and something you can ultimately embrace.
“People are thinking it will be hugely different, but I don’t see it that way. Here we are in August, yet every other year we would play a pre-season game in August and run into the season in September.
“September is only two weeks’ away and that’s when we will play the majority of our games. It’s more when we get into October, playing in semi-finals and finals, when it could be different weather conditions than what you would get normally for a June final, where it will different.
“However, to experience that, you have to get to that position first. Just like every other year our intentions will be to use these first block of games to make sure we get there and start to tick a few of those boxes off. That’s when you can start to look beyond that and talk about semi-finals and finals. For now, we are not going to look that far ahead until we start knocking over a few points, because we’re not that far ahead of the rest of the field for us to start putting ourselves under pressure by not turning up and playing well.”
For the first return to action, Baxter has assembled a powerful array of proven Chiefs talent. Of all the newcomers to arrive, only Scottish international Jonny Gray is afforded a starting role. He will debut in the second-row alongside Jonny Hill, while fellow newcomer and compatriot, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, is named amongst the replacements.
Elsewhere, the line-up has a familiar feel with England duo Ollie Devoto and Henry Slade in the midfield, Scottish captain Stuart Hogg at full-back, while Joe Simmonds skippers the side from fly-half. In the pack, it’s an all-England front-row of Alec Hepburn, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Harry Williams, whilst Sam Simmonds’ guile at No.8 is perfectly complemented with the African might of Dave Ewers and Jannes Kirsten.
On the bench, there is the welcome sight of Tomas Francis back in action. The Welsh prop has not played since severely damaging his shoulder in Wales’ World Cup defeat to South Africa back in October of last year.
Tomorrow’s game is live on BT Sport and Channel 5 and supporters are kindly reminded to stay away from Sandy Park as the game will be played behind closed doors.
EXETER CHIEFS SIDE TO FACE LEICESTER TIGERS
15 Stuart Hogg
14 Tom O’Flaherty
13 Henry Slade
12 Ollie Devoto
11 Olly Woodburn
10 Joe Simmonds (capt)
9 Jack Maunder
1 Alec Hepburn
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Harry Williams
4 Jonny Gray
5 Jonny Hill
6 Dave Ewers
7 Jannes Kirsten
8 Sam Simmonds
16 Jack Yeandle
17 Ben Moon
18 Tomas Francis
19 Sam Skinner
20 Don Armand
21 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne
22 Gareth Steenson
23 Ian Whitten