Exeter Chiefs Director of Rugby Rob Baxter says his side will need to make the most of home advantage during a crucial block of Aviva Premiership fixtures over the next month.
After seven rounds of action so far, the defending champions are positioned second in the standings, two points adrift of leaders Saracens and five clear of next best Leicester Tigers.
In Europe and in the Anglo-Welsh Cup, Devon’s finest have also made unbeaten starts in those competitions, but it’s the bread and butter of the league which is utmost in the thoughts of Baxter ahead of Sunday’s home clash against Harlequins (3pm).
Having been given a solid foundation from which to build, Baxter is keen for his team to kick on in the coming weeks against rivals Harlequins (home), Saracens (away) and Bath (home).
“I think we have to make a big focus on this block and collecting as many points as we can, especially as two of the three games are at home,” said Baxter. “We’ve given ourselves a good foundation from the opening few rounds, but now we have to be aiming to accelerate on.
“Yes, we’re missing a few boys this weekend because of the internationals, but equally we’ve got a number of other guys coming back as well. Add into that, we have a group of players who have been playing and performing well, winning some important games for us, so the key is to ensure we amalgamate all of those things together into a big performance this weekend.”
Although missing four of his key stars (Sam Simmonds, Henry Slade, Harry Williams and Tomas Francis) to international duty this weekend, Baxter is still able to parade a power arsenal of talent for the visit of the Londoners, who themselves are minus a plethora of frontline names due to Test match duty and injury.
England stars Luke Cowan-Dickie and Ollie Devoto, both of whom have been sidelined for much of the season, are both included in this weekend’s squad following successful returns to action during the recent Anglo-Welsh Cup block, while Scottish international Moray Low is another to benefit from decent showings in the past fortnight, packing down for his Premiership start of the season alongside skipper Jack Yeandle and fellow prop Ben Moon.
Such experience will be vital against a Harlequins side, who will head to the Westcountry looking to claim a prized scalp in the shape of the Chiefs.
“In their words, they’ve had a few ups and downs so far this season,” said Baxter. “At times, they’ve looked very dangerous and scored a lot of points, but at other times they’ll probably feel a little annoyed with the points they have lost.
“You look at their squad, however, they have some very good players and although a few of them will be away on international duty this weekend, they still carry multiple threats across the board. When a team carries multiple threats like that, they can often scare you because you can play well against them, but all of a sudden they score against you. Then you play well again for another ten minutes, and then they score again against you.
“I’ll be honest, I don’t like playing against sides like that, so what we have talked about this week is focusing more on ourselves. If we try to cover off every single threat that Harlequins bring, we will probably end up getting even more confused, so instead we have talked about the intensity we want to bring to the game and how we want to play and how we want to defend. What we are expecting then is that a lot of those systems and a lot of those actions we perform, ultimately deal with the threats Harlequins will bring.”
With a big focus being put on intensity levels in particular, Baxter has warned his players they need to be on their mettle from the outset.
“It’s a challenging first game back into the Premiership after the recent Cup block,” he continued. “In the last few weeks we’ve gone from playing in the Champions Cup to the Premiership and then into the Anglo-Welsh. Now, we have to focus our minds on getting back up and running in the Premiership again.
“We know it will be a step up compared to the last few weeks. As well as the boys played in the Anglo-Welsh, this weekend will be much, much different, so we can’t sit back and think we can walk out and just get on with things. Whatever we want to get out of this weekend, we have to make ourselves.”
Supporters who have yet to purchase tickets for Sunday’s game are advised to do so quickly as there are now less than 1,000 available. Tickets can be bought either online by clicking here or through the Trading Post, which is open until 4:30pm on Friday.
CHIEFS SIDE TO FACE HARLEQUINS
15 Phil Dollman
14 Lachie Turner
13 Ian Whitten
12 Ollie Devoto
11 Olly Woodburn
10 Gareth Steenson
9 Nic White
1 Ben Moon
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Moray Low
4 Mitch Lees
5 Jonny Hill
6 Don Armand
7 Julian Salvi
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Luke Cowan-Dickie
17 Alec Hepburn
18 Greg Holmes
19 Toby Salmon
20 Sam Skinner
21 Will Chudley
22 Joe Simmonds
23 Sam Hill