Rob Baxter is hopeful his Exeter Chiefs side can bring the curtain down on a memorable 2017 with victory in their final outing against Leicester Tigers at a packed out Sandy Park on Sunday (3pm).
Top of the Aviva Premiership pile heading into the final weekend of the year, the Chiefs will be looking to put the seal on a fantastic 12 months, the highlight of which has to be their maiden title triumph over Wasps at Twickenham in May.
Since then, however, Baxter’s squad have continued to push forward, establishing a ten-point cushion at the halfway stage over next-best Saracens at the summit of the league.
During that time the champions have suffered just two defeats in league battle. The first came on opening night away to Gloucester, the other against Sunday’s visitors at the end of September when they went down 20-13 at Welford Road.
Baxter is aware of the threat posed by English rugby’s most decorated club side and has warned his players accordingly that they will have their “hands full” when the two collide again in Round 12 this weekend.
“Watching them last week, it was a hugely physical game and in the end it was Saracens who had the key moments and took the game away from them,” said Baxter. “Saracens, we know, are a very good side and they are very good at winning games like they did last week.
“At the same time, Leicester are themselves a very good rugby side. They have a couple of British Lions in their front-row and they have a back line made up last week of Youngs, Ford, Toomua and Tuilagi, who everyone knows are not only class, but they are international class.
“Yes, we will have our hands full and we will need to play well, but that’s kind of what the Premiership is all about. It should be tough playing Leicester because they are a good side. Our guys should expect to have to play at a level of intensity that will really test them, but if they do hit the levels I know they are capable of, then I expect it to bring the best out of them.”
Certainly the Chiefs have shown over the past year that they are more than capable of rising to the challenge, producing some outstanding displays and results on their way to establishing themselves as top dogs in English rugby.
“It’s been a fantastic year and it’s been the year we won the Premiership for the first time,” added Baxter. “It was a fantastic milestone for the players and the staff involved over the years, but now we have Leicester this weekend and the truth is sport is not about years, it’s about seasons.
“As great as the win was for us, that was last season and now we have to make sure we focus on this season. We’ve done it well so far and we’ve handled being champions well, but the important thing now is not to count our chickens too early. We have to focus on the day by day and the week by week processes, and make sure we are ready to perform against Leicester.
“It’s all well and good having a lead at the top, but if we don’t focus in training today, tomorrow or the day after, then there is no point thinking about beating Leicester, because we won’t. I know they won’t be thinking about anything else then beating us this weekend, so we have to focus exactly the same as them.”
The Chiefs have demonstrated that each year they are learning from the many experiences that go through, a point underlined with last weekend’s 35-14 victory at Northampton Saints, a venue where the season previous they had come unstuck.
Baxter continued: “Going to Northampton last week showed how we are learning all the time. The previous year we had gone there, again as the form side and with them out of form, but we ending up losing that day. This year we talked more about going there, playing with a high intensity, and making it about what we wanted from the game. What we had talked about in the week leading up to the game, we then followed through on the pitch and we forced through what was a very good win in the end.”
Now, Exeter’s Director of Rugby will be craving for more of the same from his side, which shows / changes to that which took to the field at Franklin’s Gardens. Up front, Alec Hepburn replaces Ben Moon in the front-row, while former Tigers favourite Thomas Waldrom - who claimed his 50th try for the Chiefs at the Saints - gets the nod over Sam Simmonds at No.8.
Behind, Aussie international Lachie Turner returns to the starting XV having missed last week’s game due to a facial injury, so he slots in at full-back, meaning England star Henry Slade reverts back into the midfield alongside Sam Hill with Ian Whitten dropping down to the bench.
The only other changes in personnel come on the bench where international duo Tomas Francis and Nic White come in for Greg Holmes and Stuart Townsend.
Supporters are reminded that Sunday’s game is a sell-out and that no tickets will be made available ahead of kick-off.
15 Lachie Turner
14 Jack Nowell
13 Henry Slade
12 Sam Hill
11 Olly Woodburn
10 Gareth Steenson (capt)
9 Will Chudley
1 Alec Hepburn
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Harry Williams
4 Sam Skinner
5 Jonny Hill
6 Dave Ewers
7 Don Armand
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Jack Yeandle
17 Carl Rimmer
18 Tomas Francis
19 Mitch Lees
20 Sam Simmonds
21 Nic White
22 Ian Whitten
23 James Short
Member since: 5th January 2016
Hi, I am Mark Stevens, Media and Communications Manager for the Exeter Chiefs