'We can get stronger' says Hepher
By Mark Stevens
Exeter Chiefs fired an ominous warning to their Gallagher Premiership rivals, insisting they will get stronger despite securing a home semi-final in this season’s play-offs with victory at Leicester Tigers on Saturday.
The table-topping Chiefs had already booked their last four spot in record time ahead of their trip to Welford Road, but Rob Baxter’s side were in no mood to let their foot off the gas, running in seven tries during a 52-20 success.
Matt Kvesic started the scoring, touching down after just ten minutes, before he was followed over the whitewash by further scores from Jack Yeandle, Olly Woodburn, Henry Slade, Ollie Devoto, Santiago Cordero and Jack Nowell. Fly-half Joe Simmonds converted every try, as well as adding a second half penalty, to put the seal on a polished performance from the visitors.
In reply, Jonny May and Tom Youngs both scored tries for the Tigers, before England hooker Youngs was sent off midway through the second half for a high hit on Exeter lock Ollie Atkins.
Exeter’s win - their 15th in 18 league starts - means the Chiefs are now on 76 points and closing in fast on the league record, held by Saracens, of 87 points. Baxter’s side have four games to play in the regular season, three of which will take place at Sandy Park.
Post-match, Baxter handed media duties over to head coach Ali Hepher, who waxed lyrical about his side’s latest display. He said: “There were a couple of things pleased me. Firstly, the way our attack functioned, the pace we got into the game, the tempo we played at, and the way we were able to keep the ball for long periods and find a bit of space, it was very good.
“Add into that, there was a fantastic shift from the two guys (Atkins and Sean Lonsdale) in the second row. We had lost two of our locks late in the day this week, yet those two came in and they really grafted for the team. Ollie put in 80 minutes on Monday night for the Braves and he’s done another big shift there again today. It was also nice to see Richard Capstick make his Premiership debut and do so well when he came on.”
Overall, though, the Chiefs were just too dominant for the Tigers in every area. Although the home side offered a decent resistance in the first half, the second half belonged solely to the league leaders.
“They [Leicester] have dangerous individuals in that side, so the challenge we put down to our guys was are we going to sit back because we knew the physical confrontation would bring. They did that and they also looked dangerous in attack, so we’re obviously very pleased with the end result.
“I also thought the attitude our guys brought in a situation where, ‘did we really have to win today? Probably not, but it shows a fantastic mental resolve to perform when you don’t necessarily have to. Again, it’s another learn for us along the way and I think we are building nicely into a mentally strong side.”
With Wasps next up at Sandy Park this Sunday, Hepher and the Chiefs coaches have challenged their players to keep improving.
“The statement we need to make is in the semi-final, not necessarily now,” added Hepher. “If we make it, then we have a chance to make another in the final, that’s the only statements we can focus on. What we are pleased with is the way we performed and what we have got to do is make sure we keep our feet on the ground and work harder next week.
Finishing first is not important, the importance is how we perform through to the rest of the season. Getting in top two was important, as was top four before that. The good thing is we have a home semi-final, but let’s make sure we don’t take foot off the gas. There is still more growth in us and we can get better. Certainly there are areas in defence to improve on and equally there are elements to our attack which are just starting to gain momentum. Hopefully, over these final few weeks we can really up the intensity in everything we do and put in some very strong performances.”