Sitting top after the opening two rounds, the Chiefs will be looking to record only their second-ever victory on French soil when they tackle Patrice Collazo’s side at the Stade Marcel Deflandre.
Buoyed by an impressive run of recent results, which has included Premiership wins against Northampton Saints, Wasps and Saracens in as many weeks, Devon’s finest will be hoping for more of the same against their Top 14 hosts.
“Thursday could be a defining game for us,” said Baxter. “We’re top of the pool, we did well to beat Connacht and we were frustrated not to win over in Bayonne, but that forces us to go to La Rochelle and look for the win.
“If we lose out there, we’ll start to lose control of the group, and that’s what we can’t afford to do. At the moment, it’s in our hands, and we’ve got to keep it that way.”
Indeed, having succumb to a last-gasp defeat at Bayonne in their opening European fixture back in mid-October, the Chiefs responded in style a week later by claiming maximum reward from their 33-13 home win over Connacht.
Baxter wants to see more of the same against their French hosts, who themselves lost to Connacht in Round One, before then overcoming Bayonne on home soil seven days later.
“The game against Bayonne was frustrating for us as we were in control of things for such a large part of the game,” explained Baxter. “For some reason, we then manufactured a momentum change in the first half which helped them; then we somehow manufactured an opportunity for them score the crucial try at the end.
“Yes, it was frustrating for us, but we had to deal with it and move forward. We did that very well and the outcome after the four Cup games [European and LV= Cup) was that we were at the head of both our pools and in good form going back into the Premiership. Hopefully, come the end of this latest Cup block, we can look to do the same again.”
With little time to do anything between Saturday’s latest 27-18 win over Saracens and tomorrow’s clash, Baxter says it’s been a somewhat different week of preparation for himself and his players.
He continued: “Obviously we’ve had a few interesting things to deal with, the main one being it’s been a much shorter training week for us all. That throws up things for us as a team, so to get a lot of changes up and running and then to the standard we need to go over to France and win an important game of rugby has been difficult.
“We obviously want to use the squad and get players refreshed and ready for the Premiership, which is looking like a very exciting competition for us now, but I think what you’ll probably see is us sticking largely with a strong group when we go over there.
“Of course we’ll look after people who have picked up bumps and bruises over the last week. Obviously, there’s a short turnaround, so we won’t risk anybody who’s a little bit sore, but it will be a strong group and a group with whom we’ll expect to go over there and win the game, because that’s what we have to do.”
Certainly Baxter knows the importance of the game with five of Saturday’s starters getting the nod tomorrow. Match-winner Gareth Steenson skippers the side from the fly-half berth, whilst Luke Cowan-Dickie, Moray Low, Dave Ewers and Matt Jess also start from the outset.
The rest of the side, though, is packed with a hungry mix of talent and experience, all of whom will be keen to make the most of the opportunity afforded to them by the Chiefs coaching team.
“I think we’re quite excited about it because there will be opportunities for guys who maybe have been a little unfortunate not to play more rugby over the past couple of weeks,” said Baxter. “I’m thinking of guys like Ben White, who was outstanding against Northampton [in last month’s 24-18 away win] but who has not featured in our last two wins.
“We’ve also got a few backs who are very good players but have not had a lot of game-time, players like Tom James, Adam Hughes, Fetu’u Vainikolo and Byron McGuigan.
“Mitch Lees is back and up and running as well, so we’ve got quite a lot of strength in depth at the moment. Seeing how those guys meld in with the rest of the players over the next couple of weeks will be very important for us going forward.”
But as Baxter is well aware, overcoming French teams on their own patch is far from easy and he expects La Rochelle to pose a stiff challenge to his players.
He continued: “Everything in sport suggests the away game should be the tougher proposition, particularly when there’s a fair bit of travelling to do and you’re going to a different country – and especially when you’re going to France.
“French teams have a reputation for defending their own patch, so we know it’s going to be tough, but we’ve come through some tough battles over the last few weeks.”
Following tomorrow’s game, the two clubs will then gear up for the second instalment of battle when they lock horns at Sandy Park on Saturday week [Dec 13].
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