Rob Baxter says it’s vital his Exeter Chiefs grasp every opportunity afforded to them as they look to maintain their momentum in this season’s Aviva Premiership.
Having clocked up a 13-match unbeaten streak that stretches back to the end of October, the Chiefs – along with Wasps and Saracens – have already booked their place in next month’s end of season play-offs.
With that objective already safely secured in the bag, however, next on the list for Baxter and his players is to ensure home advantage in the last four – and that means finishing the scheduled season with a flourish.
First up is tomorrow’s sold-out visit of Northampton Saints to Sandy Park (3pm), followed by a final day assignment at Kingsholm on May 6, where Gloucester lie in wait for the Devonians.
Currently second in the top flight standings, five adrift of leaders Wasps, but two ahead of Saracens in third, the message is simple from Exeter’s Commander-in-Chief about what is needed over this final fortnight.
“What I’m really pleased about is the way the players have responded to what we have asked them to do,” said Baxter. “All we’ve said to them is that we want them to keep their future and their destiny in their own hands. At the moment, things are in our hands as to whether we get a home semi-final.
“It’s simple, if we keep winning then we get a home semi and that is what we have to do again on Saturday,”
Standing in the way of the Chiefs this weekend will be a Saints side, who themselves harbour seasonal aspirations of their own in these coming weeks.
Although a top four placing will be a tall order, mathematically it remains on the cards for Jim Mallinder’s men, who despite a string of narrow league defeats can still do some damage to their rivals.
“This is a hugely exciting game for both teams,” added Baxter, whose 39-26 win at Harlequins last time out ensured the Chiefs of their sixth successive try bonus point victory.
“We are fighting hard to try and get a home semi-final in the play-offs, while Northampton are fighting flat out because mathematically they can still get in the top four. If they don’t do that, obviously they will be desperate to get into that top six because they are a regular Champions Cup team and it means a lot to them to remain in that competition.
“As I said, it’s a big game for both of us. We are going well at the moment and we’re trying to maintain some momentum going into these last few weeks. Obviously we’d love to win at the weekend and play well in front of our home crowds, but at the same time we’re very aware of the threat Northampton pose.
“If you look at their last three games in particular, they’ve been real heartbreakers for them, even though they’ve played very well. Yes, we have won our last six and you can say form and momentum is with us, but if you look at Northampton’s performances, other than losing late on, they are on pretty good form.
“Everything apart from the scoreboard has been good for them, so it makes them a very tough opponent for us at the weekend.”
That said, the Chiefs are in fine fettle and they will head into tomorrow’s contest with plenty of confidence, especially in the wake of their showing against Harlequins at The Stoop.
“It was probably one of our stand-out performances of the season,” continued Baxter. “People will have been aware we had a few injuries going into that game. We also had a short turnaround week; Quins had all of their international players back in tow; and they had lost only once at home all season in the league, so we always knew it was going to be a tough test on the night.
“Add in to all of that, the week previous we had a particularly tough game against Bristol, one in which we had to do a lot of carrying which expended more energy, it was fantastic to see how the guys responded; how they stood up to what was thrown at them; before then finishing the job off themselves in that last quarter.
“I can’t give the players any more credit than I did in the wake of that game. Right now we are knocking off challenges one game at a time; the attitude of the squad is fantastic, and we’re looking to really kick on.
“Every week I keep asking the guys to be excited and not worry too much about things or how it may all slip away. Instead, I just want them to go out and make sure they take this opportunity with both hands. If you do that, then I’m a big believer you give yourself a greater chance of success.”
Team news for the Chiefs sees Baxter stick with an unchanged pack of forwards who will be headed up by captain Jack Yeandle in the front row.
Behind, however, there are changes. Niggling injuries to Jack Maunder and Henry Slade mean Stu Townsend and Gareth Steenson start at half-backs; Ian Whitten returns at centre at the expense of Michele Campagnaro; while in the back three Jack Nowell, recently named in the British & Irish Lions squad, returns on the wing for James Short.
On the bench, prop Harry Williams and fly-half Joe Simmonds are both recalled to first team duty, as is scrum-half Will Chudley, who has recovered from operations on both of his shoulders to make his first appearance since Exeter draw at Saracens at the turn of the year.
15 Lachie Turner
14 Jack Nowell
13 Ian Whitten
12 Ollie Devoto
11 Olly Woodburn
10 Gareth Steenson
9 Stuart Townsend
1 Carl Rimmer
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Greg Holmes
4 Dave Dennis
5 Geoff Parling
6 Dave Ewers
7 Don Armand
8 Kai Horstmann
16 Luke Cowan-Dickie
17 Ben Moon
18 Harry Williams
19 Ollie Atkins
20 Julian Salvi
21 Will Chudley
22 Joe Simmonds
23 Sam Hill
Member since: 5th January 2016
Hi, I am Mark Stevens, Media and Communications Manager for the Exeter Chiefs