Rob Baxter is confident his Exeter Chiefs side can kick-off the New Year in much the same manner as they finished a memorable 2017 with victory away to Newcastle Falcons on Sunday (3pm).
The reigning Aviva Premiership champions brought the curtain down on a memorable 12 months on New Year’s Eve when they produced a powerful second half display - one which yielded four tries - to see off visiting Leicester Tigers 30-6 at Sandy Park.
That victory, Exeter’s 10th in 12 league starts this season, has meant they will start 2018 some ten points clear of next-best Saracens.
Baxter, though, says the Chiefs can ill afford to let their standards drop at Kingston Park and has called on his players to continue to drive home their high standards and inflict a second defeat of the season on their hosts, who were beaten 34-24 in Devon back in early October.
Like the Chiefs, Dean Richards’ side are in fine form, winning their last five fixtures in all competitions, so it’s with a note of caution that Baxter has told his players to brace themselves for a testing encounter in the North East this weekend.
“When you look at Newcastle, they have spent enough time together as a group to feel very comfortable in what they do,” said Baxter. “The biggest thing I see when I look at them closely is that they stick at it and each player knows their role. That in turn allows them to be competitive against most side over course of 80 minutes.
“That is something we like to pride ourselves on, we too have a core group of players who know how we want to play, are prepared to stick at it over 80 minutes, and often that brings you good rewards. We know it will be a tough challenge for us, they are going well at the moment, and their last home game again Harlequins was very productive for them.”
The Chiefs, however, are the form team in English rugby and Baxter believes it’s imperative his players continue to replicate the hard work which has driven them to the summit of the table this season. The Exeter boss also dismissed talk of rival clubs Wasps and Saracens, who play each other this weekend, potentially knocking points off one another.
“The important thing is not to look around and try and second guess what others are doing,” added Baxter. “Simply because as soon as you do that, you lose track of what you want to do. We talk all the time about the day by day stuff which has brought us the points. We don’t want to find reasons why we want to lose, we want to find drivers for why we want to win and why we want to play well.
“Most of those drivers come down to the fact that it’s a game of Premiership Rugby and that’s a pretty big thing at the end of the day. In most players careers, there are not that many of them, a really good career you play 100 or so games. A good career you play 40 or 50, so they don’t come along every day and that’s why you have to cherish them for what they are and make the most of that 80 minutes at the weekend.”
Injuries sustained in the Leicester win deprive Baxter of England trio Harry Williams (concussion), Luke Cowan-Dickie (hip) and Jack Nowell (ankle), but the Chiefs boss said all three were not long-term concerns and that he was hopeful they would be available again soon.
With the trio missing, Tomas Francis and Jack Yeandle come into the front-row, while James Short is the man entrusted with filling the void left by Nowell on the wing. Other changes in personnel see Mitch Lees and Ollie Atkins come into the second-row, Matt Kvesic and Sam Simmonds start in the back-row, while there is a recall at scrum-half for Aussie Nic White and Ian Whitten in the centre.
Despite the re-shuffle, Baxter is confident those entrusted with starting against the Falcons can deliver and help maintain Exeter’s pole position after 13 rounds of battle.
“I’m comfortable with the squad and how it’s performing each week,” said Baxter. “Yes, we are rotating players across the squad, but that’s what you kind of have to do. It’s not my job to keep them all happy, my job is to be fair and say the opportunities are there, but they have to be created by the players themselves.
“It’s not got me to give an opportunity for someone who has not trained or not played well. It’s for that guy to prove he deserves to be selected by training well, the S&C guys come into the office and tell me he’s training flat out, the physios report they have no issues, and we know that he is up to speed and ready to go.
“If all those things are in place, that will give him the best opportunity to play well when he comes in. As I said, it’s not for me to keep him happy by offering him a game, opportunities at this level are not just handed to you, you have to demand them. That tends to be why the guys who are doing well demand those chances and want to do well.”
15 Lachie Turner
14 James Short
13 Ian Whitten
12 Sam Hill
11 Olly Woodburn
10 Gareth Steenson
9 Nic White
1 Alec Hepburn
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Tomas Francis
4 Mitch Lees
5 Ollie Atkins
6 Dave Ewers
7 Matt Kvesic
8 Sam Simmonds
16 Elvis Taione
17 Carl Rimmer
18 Greg Holmes
19 Toby Salmon
20 Thomas Waldrom
21 Will Chudley
22 Henry Slade
23 Phil Dollman