Domestically Exeter Chiefs have yet to put a foot wrong in terms on on-field success. Six wins from six games, 29 points out of a possible 30, it’s little wonder that Director of Rugby Rob Baxter is walking around with a smile on his face.
Tomorrow, however, the Chiefs will embark on their latest European adventure, welcoming for the first time to Sandy Park, Irish visitors Munster in Round One of this season’s Heineken Champions Cup (3:15pm).
A capacity crowd will be expected for this inaugural match-up between these two modern-day heavyweights, both of whom will be looking to deliver a telling early blow in the first of six matches that make up Pool 2.
Gallagher Premiership rivals Gloucester and French champions Castres provide the other opposition within a mouth-watering group, which is set to bring the best out the best in all four clubs over the coming months.
For Baxter, though, the switch of scenery from league matters to that of Europe’s top cup competition is one that the Exeter leader is clearly relishing. Indeed, he has made no secret in recent weeks of how much he and his Chiefs will be going after this year’s tournament, starting against the visiting Irishmen this weekend.
Whereas the Chiefs have proven their worth over recent years in the Premiership, the Champions Cup has been a much tougher nut to crack. Just once have the Devonians made it into the knock-out stages, that was in April 2016, only to go down to a last-gasp kick by Wasps fly-half Jimmy Gopperth.
Last season, Baxter’s side got off to a flying start, defeating both Glasgow Warriors (home) and Montpellier (away), only for their campaign to come unstuck in December when eventual champions Leinster beat them on successive weekends.
Although out-muscled on home turf in the first of those meetings, the Chiefs showed a week later over in Dublin that they are more than capable of holding their own amongst Europe’s elite, narrowly going down 22-17 at the Aviva Stadium.
In both those games, the Chiefs could argue they didn’t quite get the rub of the green. A high tackle on Jack Nowell in the first leg should have seen Exeter awarded a penalty try on the day, while Cian Healy’s high tackle in the second meeting was deemed only a yellow on the day, but upgraded to a red card in a citing review just days later.
Despite those losses, the Chiefs could still have prospered within the competition. Another victory over Montpellier put them in a great position to qualify, only for Baxter’s side to come unstuck in their final outing up in a snowy Glasgow.
Harsh lessons were learnt throughout the campaign and as Baxter prepares to send his troops into battle again this season, he is acutely aware that now is the time for all of them to stand up and be counted when it comes to the Champions Cup.
“The truth is, we don’t actually have to do much more than what we have been doing,” said Baxter. “Everyone talks about Exeter being that little step away, but last year was probably the perfect example.We got the perfect start beating Glasgow and then Montpellier
“Did we then let ourselves own a little bit against Leinster? Potentially, yes.
“That said, they were probably the team that looked like winning the Champions Cup quite early in the competition. When you look at how tight those two games were between us and them, it came down to some fine margins in the end. If we’re honest, we probably let ourselves down a little in that first game.
“Over in Dublin, we played well, we got the lead and we were relatively in control of the game for long periods. Then you get the incident with Cian Healy, who got a yellow on the day, but it later gets turned into a four-week ban and a red card, these little moments can have a huge swing in tight games like that one.”
Baxter added: “It’s all very well people saying Exeter were that little bit off, but actually I think we’ve been very close and we’ve not been too far away in terms of reaching the levels that we want to.
“What we’ve talked about recently is that when you get those one or two scenarios that go against you, we now have to push ourselves onto that next level knowing we can drive our way through it. If you look at Leinster last year, especially in that second game, we had them under pressure, they were behind on the scoreboard, they had yellow cards, yet they still found a way to win the game. That is what we have to add.”
Well, the Chiefs will get their chance to heed the words of Baxter against a Munster outfit, who have not only won Europe’s top prize on two previous occasions, but are regular runners in the latter stages, including the past two seasons when they have got to the semi-final stage.
Although the visitors have had mixed league results heading into tomorrow’s tussle, Baxter is taking their form in the Guinness Pro14 with a pinch of salt. Instead, he’s warned his players to expect their stiffest challenge of the season so far.
“It’s hard to compare our results and our selection with them because the Premiership and the Pro14 are completely different,” said Baxter. “Obviously there is an element of managing their international players that Munster are able to do in the opening stages that we’re not able to do in our league.
“That’s why unless they have what you’d describe as their frontline players out there, you have to take some of their results with a pinch of salt. Last week, against Leinster, if you watch that game what you will see is a very competitive side and a team playing with great intensity.
“It wasn’t necessary a game full of open running rugby, but it was high intensity between two teams desperate to win - and that sometimes can often be very good preparation for a competition like the Champions Cup. We know they have the ability to step things up because they’ve shown that over many years in this competition. What we have do is not only meet that challenge, but also step up our intensity at home, where traditionally we are very strong, and make sure it’s not easy for them.”
Ahead of kick-off, Baxter has decided to stick with a largely unchanged formula from that which won 39-24 at Bath a week ago. The sole change sees Ian Whitten promoted from the bench to partner Henry Slade in the centre. Sam Hill comes in on the bench to provide midfield back-up.
15 Phil Dollman
14 Jack Nowell
13 Henry Slade
12 Ian Whitten
11 Santiago Cordero
10 Gareth Steenson (capt)
9 Stuart Townsend
1 Ben Moon
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Harry Williams
4 Dave Dennis
5 Sam Skinner
6 Dave Ewers
7 Don Armand
8 Matt Kvesic
16 Jack Yeandle
17 Alec Hepburn
18 Tomas Francis
19 Ollie Atkins
20 Tom Lawday
21 Jack Maunder
22 Joe Simmonds
23 Sam Hill
Member since: 5th January 2016
Hi, I am Mark Stevens, Media and Communications Manager for the Exeter Chiefs