There may be one round of the scheduled Aviva Premiership season to go, but there is still plenty to do for Rob Baxter and his Exeter Chiefs over the coming weeks.
It starts tomorrow at Kingsholm where Gloucester lie in wait in Round 22 of this season’s competition (4pm).
The Chiefs will head up the M5 safe in the knowledge that they are already assured of a place in the end of season play-offs, but it’s whether they have home advantage that will be uppermost in their thoughts ahead of kick-off.
Win against the Cherry & Whites and the Chiefs will guarantee themselves of a home semi-final on Saturday, May 20. However, draw or lose and It all gets a bit more complicated with leaders Wasps and third-placed Saracens – who clash at the Ricoh Arena at the same time – looking to profit from any kind of slip from Baxter’s charges.
With their fate in their own hands – just as Baxter wants it – the in-form Chiefs will travel in confident mood, looking to extend their unbeaten run in the top flight to 15 games.
Last weekend’s 36-12 win over Northampton Saints not only drew Devon’s finest level on 79 points with Wasps, but saw the Chiefs create history by recording a seventh successive try bonus win on the bounce.
Baxter will crave more of the same this weekend, but knows from past experience that turning over Gloucester on their own patch is no formality, and has warned his team to be prepared for battle.
"I think there are very few teams that have good away records at any ground consistently, so I would say yes, going away from home against a good side is a concern, for obvious reasons," said Baxter. "But when you look at our record over the last number of games, whether we've gone home or away, we've expressed ourselves really well, and that's what we've got to be prepared to do.
"Our last away win at Harlequins, you wouldn't say all the time we've been in the Premiership we've had the greatest of records there, but we went there and expressed ourselves really well, and we ended up with a result we needed. That is exactly what we are expecting again this weekend at Gloucester."
The chance, however, to glean home advantage in the last four – against whichever opposition – offers Baxter and his players the prime incentive to go out and once again really attack the game tomorrow.
"I think the home semi-final is important for us for a variety of reasons, but the most important reason is we want to bring a big game here to Sandy Park and we want to play in front of our own supporters, who have again been fantastic both home and away for us,” added Baxter.
"It isn't the be-all or end-all. We've been very good away from home as well and we've looked at every week being a very exciting challenge for us."
Home or away, the Chiefs have demonstrated in recent months that they are happy to take their all-court game out onto the pitch against whoever and wherever – and that producing hard-working displays ultimately brings rich rewards, such as the glut of five-point wins against their Premiership rivals.
He said: " It's something we've not achieved before. It's a nice little added goal for us, but winning a game of rugby is the most important thing, and how we prepare day by day is what we're focusing on at the moment.
"We've collected more points than we ever have done before, more points than we got last season, and we finished second. That said, despite all those wins and all those points, the top three can still end up in any order going into the last week, so it's hugely exciting for everybody."
Late October at home to Bath was the last time Chiefs lost in the Premiership and their impressive sequence of results leaves them three short of the longest unbeaten Premiership run, which is held by Leicester Tigers at 17 games in 1999-2000. And Baxter says that the Chiefs' run is all down to the players fulfilling their potential on the field.
He said: "After the first five or six rounds, if someone had said you'd be in second place going into the last round of the season, I would most certainly have taken it. But I think we weren't playing at our potential, and I think once you're playing at your potential, there's always a way forward, and that's what we really had to do.
"We had to reset a couple things and get playing to our potential. Now we're playing to our potential, things look very good for us."
Ahead of kick-off, Baxter has been forced into changing his winning formula following last weekend’s win over the Saints. Prop Greg Holmes, back-row forwards Dave Ewers and Don Armand, plus full-back Lachie Turner all picked up knocks and will miss out tomorrow.
With Turner sidelined, England international Jack Nowell switches from the wing to the No.15 jersey with leading try-scorer James Short recalled to the starting line-up. Up front, Ben Moon, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Harry Williams form a new-look front-row, while Ollie Atkins comes into the second row with Dave Dennis reverting into the back-row alongside the recalled Julian Salvi. On the bench, Tomas Francis, Sam Skinner and Sam Simmonds are added to the match-day 23 from a week ago.
15 Jack Nowell
14 Olly Woodburn
13 Ian Whitten
12 Ollie Devoto
11 James Short
10 Gareth Steenson (capt)
9 Stuart Townsend
1 Ben Moon
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Harry Williams
4 Ollie Atkins
5 Geoff Parling
6 Dave Dennis
7 Julian Salvi
8 Kai Horstmann
16 Jack Yeandle
17 Carl Rimmer
18 Tomas Francis
19 Sam Skinner
20 Sam Simmonds
21 Will Chudley
22 Joe Simmonds
23 Sam Hill