Exeter Chiefs may not have created history last weekend, but Director of Rugby Rob Baxter saw enough from his side in defeat at Gloucester to give him plenty of encouragement for the future.
The reigning Aviva Premiership champions were downed right at the death by the Cherry & Whites, losing 28-21 in their seasonal opener at Kingsholm. Jason Woodward’s last-gasp try meant the Chiefs missed not only suffered defeat in Round One, but also missed out on setting a new record of 18 games unbeaten in English rugby’s top division.
Although disappointed to come unstuck, Baxter preferred to look at the long-term vision, rather than trouble himself too much about the display which, according to the man himself, showed plenty of positives.
“I know some people will find this hard to work out, but generally I’m OK with last week,” said Baxter. ““I think there were only 13 players involved in the final who played at Gloucester. Some of them were on the bench too, so there was a bit of turnover. It is bound to have an effect on some of the detailed stuff we got wrong.
“Add into that we were going to Gloucester, a side who had a fair bit of pressure on them themselves, it was their first home game of the season at Kingsholm and they had a new coach in place, so they had a lot of positives to play for.
“For large part of the game, what we did was very good and with three or four minutes to go we looked the team likely to win. In the end, we ended up getting the losing bonus point. But, as I’ve said many times, you look back to the Saracens semi-final last season, if we didn’t score right at the end would that have been anawful performance from us? No, it wouldn’t have been
“Equally, losing in the last minute at Gloucester last week wasn’t the end of the world. Are there things we can work on and improve? Of course, there are.
“There are areas we have identified this week that we need to work on, but I think where we ultimately fell down last week was the mechanics of going through A plus B plus C to make D and E happen, didn’t quite work. Instead we were trying to get to D and E without doing those other parts first.
“Add into that a couple of defensive frailties, plus the fact one of their scores should not have stood – we all know that, including the refereeing department – and it all mounts up. We know as a side we were close to getting a four or a five-point win last week, but now we have to move on again.”
With the newly-promoted Exiles – fresh from their own opening week win against Harlequins in the London Double Header at Twickenham – next up for Baxter and his charges, the build-up to this game has been largely focused on the Chiefs and getting their game plan fully ready.
Baxter added: “I’ll not go after the players in an over aggressive manner because we went into last week saying the most important thing was we show the attitude and the qualities you need to go and win a game at Kingsholm. We knew we would have to work hard and that we would need to keep going right until the end. Anyone who saw the game we’ll see we did all of that.
“As coach, I get to see the physical stats which the public don’t get to see. The level our guys worked at last week was right up there were some of our best wins last season, so I’m not going to go after any of them and say they were not trying.
“Did we make mistakes? Yes. Are there reasons for that? Yes. But ultimately what does that mean? As coaches, we have to put training weeks together to work at those processes and skills and look to be better this weekend.”
For Baxter and his players the proof will be in the pudding tomorrow, but the Chiefs leader is aware of the threat posed by the Londoners.
“I’m not getting carried away about us being the champions and them being the promoted side, just because it doesn’t work like that,” he continued. “In our eyes, London Irish aren’t really a newly-promoted side. I’d put them more in the mould of say Quins’ or Northampton, both of whom had a year out of the Premiership, and then came back again.
“It’s not like they are a yo-yo club, they are an established Premiership club, who we have had some good games against in the past. We know this weekend will be tough, but we have to make the contest about us first and foremost.”
Ahead of kick-off, Baxter is buoyed by the return of Aussie duo Mitch Lees and Dave Dennis to the home pack. They come in for Ollie Atkins and Matt Kvesic respectively, while the other change up front sees Tomas Francis get the nod over Harry Williams at tight-head.
Behind, the sole change to the back division sees England and British Lions star Jack Nowell come in for his first start of the season. He replaces fellow Cornishman Max Bodilly, who drops to the bench which also includes the recalled Stuart Townsend.
15 Phil Dollman
14 Jack Nowell
13 Henry Slade
12 Ian Whitten
11 Olly Woodburn
10 Gareth Steenson
9 Nic White
1 Ben Moon
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Tomas Francis
4 Mitch Lees
5 Jonny Hill
6 Dave Dennis
7 Don Armand
8 Sam Simmonds
16 Elvis Taione
17 Carl Rimmer
18 Harry Williams
19 Sam Skinner
20 Matt Kvesic
21 Stuart Townsend
22 Max Bodilly
23 Lachie Turner