England international Henry Slade helps head up a powerful Exeter Chiefs line-up that will be aiming to seal a spot in this season’s Anglo-Welsh Cup semi-finals against Bristol on Sunday (3pm).
The talented playmaker, who was released from the national camp earlier this week by Eddie Jones, is one of six changes the Devonians have made to their starting line-up from that which thumped Wasps 52-5 last time out.
Slade will partner Ian Whitten in a new look Exeter midfield, while Olly Woodburn and Jack Maunder are also included in a stellar back division. Up front, Greg Holmes gets the nod at tight-head, while behind Julian Salvi returns for the first time since picking up a bicep injury back in October.
According to skills coach Ricky Pellow it’s a super six to bring back into the ranks, but it further underlines the strength of the Chiefs squad, who moved back to the top of Pool 2 in this season’s competition on points difference from the Ospreys.
To book their place in the last four, however, the Chiefs will need to finish their qualification group on a high note. With the Ospreys travelling to Wasps, Pellow knows his side can ill afford any kind of slip-up at Ashton Gate this weekend.
“We have to go to Bristol and win,” said the Cornishman. “Then, depending on what the Ospreys do at Wasps, we will have to see where we stand after that. We know going to Bristol will be a really stern test for us, particularly as they seem to have turned a corner since we last played them in the Premiership, and they have put together a very strong squad.
“For us, though, we have to concentrate on ourselves and what we have to do. We need to go there, rip the game away from them and look to put in a big performance. We did that last weekend against Wasps, where we played with a lot of energy and a lot of control, and if we can do that again this weekend then I think the result should look after itself.”
In a competition which has served the Chiefs well over the years, Pellow has made no secret of the fact he and his team are looking to make it to a third successive final appearance.
“Every competition we enter we want to be in there at the end with a shout of qualification,” added Pellow. “Looking at this weekend, we are in there at the end and we’ve given ourselves a great chance. Last week’s result has meant we’ve put things back in our hands, so now we have to go and finish the job.
“I think the squad we have put together this weekend - and last weekend - shows our intent within the competition. It also allows us to blood some of those young academy guys alongside a number of those more senior players, several of whom need to get a bit of game time under their belts.
“As I said, we know what we have to do, we have to go up there, play well and put in a really big performance.”
But with matters at the Ricoh also in the back of Exeter’s minds, Pellow knows that his side cannot afford to go mad in their quest for victory.
“We’ve not really talked about bonus points this week and we won’t heading into the game,” he continued. “First and foremost, we have to get the fundamentals of our game right - and by that I mean we have to make sure our set-piece and our control of the game are in place from the outset. If we start getting ahead of ourselves, thinking about trying to get bonus points, then it will be like ‘harem scarem’ rugby and we won’t have the control we want.
“However, if we go stage by stage, take points early on and start to build things, if we get one or two tries then we can start to look at things a little differently.”
15 Max Bodilly
14 Olly Woodburn
13 Ian Whitten
12 Henry Slade
11 Lachie Turner
10 Joe Simmonds
9 Jack Maunder
1 Carl Rimmer
2 Shaun Malton
3 Greg Holmes
4 Sam Skinner (capt)
5 Damian Welch
6 Ben White
7 Julian Salvi
8 Sam Simmonds
16 Jack Innard
17 Moray Low
18 Harry Williams
19 Ollie Atkims
20 Thomas Waldrom
21 Joe Snow
22 Will Hooley
23 Matt Jess