The European aspirations of Exeter Chiefs may be hanging by a thread after three successive losses in this season’s Champions Cup, but head coach Rob Baxter says it is imperative his side don't allow themselves to flounder during the remainder of the competition.
Just a week after coming unstuck 13-7 at home to French rivals Bordeaux Begles, the two sides meet again tomorrow at the Stade Chaban Delmas (4pm) in a game which Baxter insists has plenty on it.
Frustrated by his side’s inability to turn possession and territory into greater reward last time out, the Chiefs will be looking to do their own ‘smash and grab’ raid on their Top 14 hosts, who having collected two wins from three and will be hoping to enhance their own qualification hopes with another success this weekend.
Last Sunday’s loss ended a four-game winning streak for the Chiefs and Baxter is hoping that another run can be re-started quickly, particularly as the Devon club have a pivotal block of Premiership fixtures coming up over Christmas and New Year against Leicester Tigers, Bath and Saracens.
"We had decided going into these two games that we probably weren't going to run with the same 23 in both games," said Baxter. "We felt we had a group of about 30 players who have been going pretty well for us over the last five or six weeks, and the likelihood was we would use the majority of those guys to see who showed us the qualities to be really competitive and on good form. That would give us a good opportunity to win those games, but then also we'd know where we stood going into the next big block of Premiership games.
"We haven't really deviated from that, so we will make some changes this week but it will still be a strong side and it will be a side we will set up to win the game; it won't be a team to go out there and simply fulfil the fixture.
“The players in the side this weekend have got an opportunity to show they are prepared to go out, play flat out and deserve to wear the shirt. That’s the challenge we set the team last week - and it’s the challenge we have set them again this week.
"I said to the guys before the first game against Bordeaux that we had a relatively small chance of going through, but what you do week by week, day by day is still very important in the overall scheme of things. To make sure you're focused in what you do, both when you're playing and when you're not playing, everything is A1.
“I’m confident and comfortable that we have a strong side again this weekend and a group of players who I know should be ready to put in a good performance. If they don’t put in a performance, then I’ll be unhappy and the players will know that.
"As I said, we’ve picked a team with a few changes, a few guys coming back from injury, and others who we want to rotate back in to make sure they have enough game time, so I’m expecting us to go out there and put in a really big performance.”
Among those returning to the ranks this weekend are fit-again duo Luke Cowan-Dickie and Phil Dollman, whilst there are also recalls for the likes of Mitch Lees, Kai Horstmann, Thomas Waldrom, Ian Whitten and Olly Woodburn having missed out last week.
The experienced Horstmann will take over captaincy duties as both Jack Yeandle and Gareth Steenson have not made the trip across the Channel.
Despite the re-jig in personnel, Baxter is confident this weekend’s troops can deliver in the heat of battle, building on the positives of not only last week’s performance, albeit in defeat, but also the success of Exeter’s previous three wins in the Premiership.
“If you look at the Ulster versus Clermont game from last weekend, it kind of wraps up two things for us,” said Baxter. “The first being it showed just how well we played over in Ulster when we came within inches and seconds of winning the game that night. The second shows just how much we let ourselves down against Clermont at home in that first game and how Ulster dealt with them, whereas we clearly did not.
“At the same time, anyone who watched out game last week will know we were massively frustrated with not converting some of the opportunities that we created. I think some of our stats for territory, possession, entry into their 22, entry into their five metre zone, thy were some of the best we have ever created, yet we have hardly scored any points.
“Yes, we were disappointed with that end conversion rate and we’ve talked about it a lot this week, but there were also huge parts of the game that we were more than satisfied with. I guess if you were to wrap up our three games, it feels like we have been right on the edge, but we’ve not quite gone over it.
“Had we done a little bit more in each of those games we could easily be sitting here now, feeling pretty pleased with ourselves and knowing we’re going to Bordeaux this weekend with plenty to play for. The performance against Clermont we know wasn’t good enough by any stretch of the imagination, but the other two games have been good and we have to make sure we keep driving that into the players.
“As I’ve said to the guys this week, we need to go over to Bordeaux and play well, show why we are in the Champions Cup, and do everything we can to win the game. We’re certainly strong enough to do that and we’ve got a squad of players capable of doing that, so I’m expecting all of them to show the qualities I expect of them.”
15 Phil Dollman
14 Jack Nowell
13 Ian Whitten
12 Sam Hill
11 Olly Woodburn
10 Henry Slade
9 Will Chudley
1 Carl Rimmer
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Harry Williams
4 Mitch Lees
5 Ollie Atkins
6 Dave Ewers
7 Kai Horstmann (capt)
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Shaun Malton
17 Moray Low
18 Greg Holmes
19 Dave Dennis
20 Don Armand
21 Jack Maunder
22 Joe Simmonds
23 Michele Campagnaro
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