After six weeks of Aviva Premiership action, focus this weekend switches to that of Europe and a trip to French Top14 side Bayonne in their opening round of this season’s new-look European Rugby Challenge Cup.
The Chiefs head across the English Channel later today to prepare for their on-field engagement at the Stade Jean Dauger tomorrow night (8pm CET).
It marks the start of four successive Cup fixtures for Devon’s finest who, after this weekend’s tussle, entertain Irish outfit Connacht next Saturday, before back-to-back home games with Gloucester and Bath in the defence of their LV= Cup crown.
Head coach Baxter admits it’s a “key month” for the Chiefs, who have won four of their six Premiership starts to date, including last weekend’s impressive 44-24 defeat of visiting London Irish.
“The Premiership is obviously your bread and butter and staying in there first and foremost is the most important thing,” said Baxter. “After that, fighting to be in the top six, possibly the top four, that is what the domestic season is all about.
“At the same time, we know from the last two years that the top tier of Europe is also a massive competition and we enjoyed being involved in that. For us it’s a long term goal to be successful in that competition as well, but we have got to take everything as it is.
“We’ve made no secret this season that our aim is to improve our position from last year in the Premiership and we’re disappointed not to be in the Champions Cup. It’s a very important competition for us and we see it as a pathway for us improving and becoming a bigger club.
“That said, we’ve named our top 38 players in the European squad, which is what you have to do, and obviously we will use 23 of them this weekend. It’s not like any of the 23 who play this week have not played in the Premiership. Yes, there will be changes because we do have a few bumps and bruises and we have to look at resting certain pliers, but we have a strong squad and one that should be able to get a result over there.”
Certainly Baxter has stuck to a core group for the opening six rounds of domestic action, but this weekend there will be those on the periphery that will get their chance to stake a claim - not only for the upcoming weeks in the Cups, but further afield when the Chiefs return to top flight action against Northampton Saints on November 14.
“As I said, we believe we have a strong squad and we believe we have some players who have been playing well and training well, who have not quite had an opportunity within the Premiership group so far this season because of the way we have been performing and gathering points,” continued Baxter.
“Therefore the key for us over these next four weeks is to come through this period in a stronger position than we are now. That in itself makes these games very important to us because I genuinely believe this is a key month for us. I say that not just in terms of getting results on the pitch, but also bringing through a group of players who are absolutely flying by the time we get back into the Premiership.
“Getting the balance of that and keep the intensity high enough for us to get back into the Premiership with ease is quite a challenge. However, the players seem focused and they’ve trained with great energy again this week. Right now I’m expecting a huge performance from us over in Bayonne - and again next week because Connacht will be another massive challenge as we know from past experiences.
“Some people think that when you say your focus is on the Premiership that it means these games don’t mean as much to you. In some ways they can mean a bit more because what you try to do is bring through players on form. While we want the players who have played in the first six games to come through these four games fit, fresh and on form we also want to bring through another five or six guys who are game ready and performing.
“That’s always happened in the past. Look at how Jack Nowell, Dave Ewers, Sam Hill and Henry Slade got their breakthroughs, it was through holding their places after big performances in these competitions.”
As always, the Chiefs have done detailed research on their French rivals and armed with the evidence, Baxter knows his side can expect to be tested.
“Any trip to a Top 14 side is tough. You know they have big squads, both physically and in terms of numbers,” said Baxter. “The atmosphere can be interesting over there as well.
“We’ve tended to enjoy the time we’ve spent in France and it’s brought out some of our top qualities, that’s what I’ll expect again. I’ll expect to see a top-quality physical and mental approach to the game and it’ll be an opportunity for the guys to show they get that part of it, that you go to France and first and foremost you have to front up physically.
“The Premiership is different to the Top 14 and often it’s the team that is mentally and physically strong enough to force their style on the game early on that will come away with the win.”
As for the Exeter changes, the pack sees a new front-row trio of Carl Rimmer, Elvis Taione and Moray Low, while behind Ryan Caldwell comes into the second row and there are starts in the back-row for the experienced pairing of James Scaysbrook and Kai Horstmann.
At half-back, Haydn Thomas gets the nod alongside skipper for the game Ceri Sweeney, the centres are made up of Ian Whitten and debutant Adam Hughes, whilst a talented back three comprises of Tom James, Jack Nowell and Jack Arnott.
The Exeter bench is equally well equipped with the likes of Brett Sturgess, Damian Welch, Sireli Naqelevuki, Gareth Steenson and Fetu’u Vainikolo all included.
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