With just two home defeats in 14 months, the term ‘fortress’ has been touted loud and proud by many observers, including those within the Sandy Park corridors.
The impressive run of form has not only helped to secure vital points within the Aviva Premiership and progression within various cup competitions for the Devon club, but it’s also been the foundation from which Baxter has been able to build for the future.
Tomorrow, that impressive record will be put on the line once again, this time against fellow high flyers Harlequins (3pm), who arrive in the Westcountry just a rung down the league ladder rom that of the second-placed Chiefs.
Both teams have enjoyed an impressive start to the 2015/16 campaign, collecting three wins out of a possible four during the opening block of league action, but the Chiefs hold a slender advantage having pocketed two additional bonus points heading into this weekend’s tussle.
Having themselves added another home win only a week ago against Bordeaux-Begles in the European Champions Cup, head coach Baxter says he and his squad are relishing the prospect of returning to domestic matters.
“We’re excited about playing Harlequins,” said Baxter. “They are one of the most established and well known teams in the Premiership and the fact it’s second versus third is fantastic and makes it exciting and more important than normal.
“For us, though, the most important thing is it’s a home game at Sandy Park and if we want to have a successful season, we have to perform well at home and we have to build a backbone and foundation of our season on the results we get here
I think that is something we will talk about in the build-up to the game, is making sure we know how important this fixture is not just because it’s Harlequins, but also because it’s at home and we have a great record here and we want to make sure it continues.”
Having stuck largely with the same group of players during the opening month of the Premiership and for the round one of Europe, Baxter used last week’s match as a chance to freshen up his squad, allowing a number of his troops to show their worth in battle against the visiting Frenchmen.
The tactic paid off handsomely as the Chiefs netted all five points from the game, whilst Baxter himself was encouraged by the display of those called upon to perform.
“To be fair, with the changes we made and the short training week we had on the back of a disappointing loss at the Ospreys, I thought it was a top quality performance,” added Baxter. “I was really pleased with the players who came into the side having only had limited game time.
“I think that shows you what you have to produce as a club in situations like that. We thought it was right to freshen it up a little bit and make changed, but as you saw everybody responded very well during the week and we were able to bounce back well from the disappointment up at the Ospreys.
“yes, it wasn’t perfect, everybody knows that, and we conceded too many points for my liking, but overall it was the kind of performance that demanded a win and that’s what you have to do a home, you have to demand a win.”
Baxter will be hoping for more of the same from his charges tomorrow against a Quins’ outfit, who bolstered by a number of high profile captures during the summer, look a much different proposition to that which the Chiefs defeated both home and away in the league last season.
“They are one of the sides that have used the extended pre-season really well,” warned the Chiefs coach. “They have developed and improved areas of their game, they’ve added stuff and they’ve worked hard with those players that they have brought in. Personally, I think they look very good.
“In some ways they look one of the most changed teams out there, but at the same time they’ve also kept some of their DNA of how they want Harlequins to play. That makes them an interesting threat and a much tougher team to play than last year and that’s no disrespect to them, but it represents a great challenge for us this weekend.
“Neither side is second or third because they are playing badly, it’s second versus third because both sides have shown good form so far this season. Right now we have pretty similar records, but we have managed to bang in a few extra bonus points along the way. Had we not, it would have been even tighter between us both.”
As it is, the Chiefs coach is banking on home advantage to provide the key ingredient for his side to maintain their pursuit of defending champions Saracens at the top of the table.
He continued: “The driving force for us is we are at home and we have a real emotional drive to make sure this place is a very important place for us to play a game of rugby. I would like to think those are the qualities we like to show our supporters, whilst at the same time show the Harlequins team that we mean business when we play here.”
Team news for the Chiefs sees recalls up front for Mitch Lees, Dave Ewers, Don Armand and Thomas Waldrom (pictured); whilst behind Gareth Steenson returns at fly-half; James Short is given the nod on the left wing and Ian Whitten’s inclusion from the outset means a new midfield partnership alongside Henry Slade.
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