Rob Baxter has told his Exeter Chiefs to ‘keep it simple’ ahead of tomorrow’s crunch Aviva Premiership encounter with Leicester Tigers at Welford Road (3pm).
Three successive bonus point wins have put the defending champions top of the pile after four rounds of battle, but Director of Rugby Baxter knows this weekend will provide another stern examination for his in-form side.
As history dictates, the Tigers have shown their colours more than once, establishing themselves as the most decorated club side in English rugby history. Such accolades don’t come easy and Baxter knows better than most that the Chiefs will have to be at their very best if they are to emerge from the Leicester den with points in tow.
Despite the season with back-to-back losses against Bath and Northampton Saints, the Midlanders have bounced back impressively, seeing off both Gloucester and Harlequins in the past fortnight to get their campaign firmly back on track.
Baxter has watched with interest all four displays and has this week spoken of a growing threat from Matt O’Connor’s side.
“Leicester have a new coach in charge and he is looking to establish some different qualities in that team,” said Baxter. “They are looking more comfortable as the weeks go by and I think they are increasing as a threat in the Premiership.
“That means that, for us, we actually have to keep things quite simple. What do we want to do on the day? What are the qualities that suit us? Can we force them onto the opposition more than they can force them onto us? That is what we have to focus on.”
But whilst the Chiefs will be wary of the hosts, equally the Tigers - who lost to the Chiefs in the same fixture last season - will know the Devonians travel in buoyant mood, having seen off London Irish, Worcester Warriors and Wasps in as many weeks.
Certainly, last Sunday’s victory over Wasps underlined Exeter’s own strengths, where a dominant first half display - that yielded four tries in the process - showed the Chiefs were beginning to rediscover the kind of form that took them all the way to the title at Twickenham back in May.
But, as pleased as he was with Sunday’s win, Baxter himself admitted there were still improvements to be made. After racing into a 24-10 lead at half-time, the momentum gradually fizzled out of the game, and Baxter thinks he knows why.
“The players put a lot into the early stages of the game. They went out there with the determination to start the game well and set the scene,” he explained. “The way we kept the ball for the opening 10 minutes of the game, which led to our first score, was really exemplary and probably laid the foundations for how we won the game.
“As a coach, you can’t really ask for any more than that. They took on board all of the messages and went out and performed at a very high level. The second half was a little frustrating because maybe some of the tactical things we did weren’t right rather than the physical things.
“We talked at half-time about keeping the ball away from Wasps as we had done in the first half but to do that you have to do a few things, like not kicking when we did kick.
“Also, when you carry the ball you have to be very strong on it and be error-free, but we made more errors on the ball, like dropping it or being stripped. That led to turnover possession and made them more comfortable on the ball as they had more of it. That led to some of the points we conceded.”
No doubt those elements will have been discussed during training this week, as will have a detailed game plan aimed at trying to see off the Tigers.
With Baxter still missing a number of his frontline stars due to injury, his playing options remain a little stifled in terms of selection. That said, those who have been selected for match-day duties have stepped up to the mark and have proven their worth to the case.
Ahead of the trip to Welford Road, Dave Ewers, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Michele Campagnaro, Sam Hill and Ollie Devoto remain sidelined, but the sight of Alec Hepburn returning to a Chiefs match-day squad for the first time in almost a year is certainly a welcome sight.
The talented prop is named on the bench in one of a number of changes the Chiefs have made to last week’s winning formula. In the back division, the sole change sees Stuart Townsend - who made his first-ever Premiership start at the Tigers last season - gets the number nine jersey with Nic White rested for the weekend.
Up front, Ben Moon, skipper Jack Yeandle and Tomas Francis form a new-look front-row; Jonny Hill returns to partner Mitch Lees at lock; while a re-jig of the back-row sees former Tigers star Julian Salvi come in from the outset as Sam Simmonds has not quite recovered from his bang to the head he took last Sunday.
Joining Hepburn on the bench are summer signing Matt Kvesic and the returning Will Chudley and Phil Dollman, all of whom missed out a week ago against Wasps.
CHIEFS SIDE TO FACE LEICESTER TIGERS
15 Lachie Turner
14 Jack Nowell
13 Henry Slade
12 Ian Whitten
11 Olly Woodburn
10 Gareth Steenson
9 Stuart Townsend
1 Ben Moon
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Tomas Francis
4 Mtch Lees
5 Jonny Hill
6 Dave Dennis
7 Julian Salvi
8 Don Armand
16 Elvis Taione
17 Alec Hepburn
18 Harry Williams
19 Sam Skinner
20 Matt Kvesic
21 Will Chudley
22 Max Bodilly
23 Phil Dollman
Member since: 5th January 2016
Hi, I am Mark Stevens, Media and Communications Manager for the Exeter Chiefs