Chiefs side to face Northampton Saints
22nd December 2017
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Ali Hepher has challenged his Exeter Chiefs side to keep "pushing on" as they look to further cement their position at the top of the Aviva Premiership. 

With tomorrow's trip to Northampton Saints marking the halfway stage of the domestic season, the reigning champions currently find themselves eight points clear of nextbest Gloucester and in fine fettle heading towards the close of what has been a memorable 12 months for all and sundry at Sandy Park. 

But as happy the Chiefs are with their present placing, Hepher says the group as a whole are keen to raise standards even higher, starting with this latest engagement at Franklin's Gardens (3pm). 

"We're top of the league currently, but we don't want to be settling for that, we want to be pushing on," said the Chiefs head coach. "This weekend will be another test of character for the guys, but that is what we want - we want to see who stands up to that challenge come Saturday afternoon." 

Standing in the way of the Chiefs will be a Northampton outfit, who have won just once in their last ten league and cup fixtures. That run of form has seen the East Midlanders slip to 10th in the Premiership, while in Europe the picture is not much better in a group that also contains ASM Clermont Auvergne, Ospreys and defending champions Saracens. 

At the same time, long-standing Director of Rugby Jim Mallinder has been relieved of his duties, leaving former lieutenants Alan Dickens and Dorian West to take charge of first team matters. 

However, despite the lack of form and the recent upheaval at the Gardens, Hepher - himself a former Saints player and Academy coach - knows the threat awaiting his side come kick-off this weekend. 

"Whether Jim was there or not, we know they are a tough side and that we will have a real battle on up there," added Hepher. "It's a big game for both sides and it will be a sell-out crowd. Our focus this week, though, has been on ourselves and making sure we hit the pitch in top order. 

"The last time we did that in the Premiership was against Bath and we produced a really good first half. Now, we've got to make sure we hit it flying again. As I said, we're concentrating on ourselves and looking to get our game in order. If we do that, then we give ourselves every chance to get something from the game." 

Not that it has always been a happy hunting ground for the Chiefs, who have won just once at the Gardens in the league in seven seasons. 

"We've talked about that in the week," continued Hepher. "We've only ever won their once in the league and we've tended to underperform when we've gone there in the past. Equally, Northampton are a good side and it's not an easy place for visiting sides to go. I know from my own experiences, it's a great place to go and play, the fans are great, and it's a proper rugby club. All we can do is to look to put our best game on the pitch and see where we end up." 

Like the Saints, the Chiefs suffered back-to-back Champions Cup defeats in the past week. Last Saturday's 22-17 loss to Leinster at the Aviva Stadium saw Exeter slip to third spot in Pool 3 with just two rounds of qualifying remaining.

 Despite the double blow, Hepher insists the mood within camp remains buoyant and that the Chiefs will travel in bullish mood. 

"We're not pushing the panic button in any way," admitted Hepher. "We've used this week to get back on track and reset ourselves well. Like always, we don't get too worried when it goes badly, nor do we get too hyper when it goes well. All we do is make sure we review and preview things well, we go through our processes like any other week, and keep ourselves on a level playing field." 

Ahead of kick-off the Chiefs have tinkered slightly with their formula. Injuries to Phil Dollman (rib) and Lachie Turner (facial) mean Henry Slade is shunted from the midfield to that of full-back, Sam Hill comes in to partner Ian Whitten at centre, while Will Chudley gets a start at scrum-half. 

Up front, Harry Williams is brought back into the front-row at the expense of Tomas Francis, Jonny Hill swaps places with Mitch Lees in the second-row, while the formidable frame of Dave Ewers is added to the back-row. His inclusion sees him making a first Premiership start since April of this year away to Harlequins.

 On the bench, props Carl Rimmer and Greg Holmes are recalled to first team duty, as are half-backs Stuart Townsend and Joe Simmonds, who reminder the coaches of his blossoming talents by scoring 27 points for the Exeter Braves in their 62-0 win over Gloucester United on Monday evening.

 15 Henry Slade

14 Jack Nowell

13 Ian Whitten

12 Sam Hill

11 Olly Woodburn

10 Gareth Steenson (capt)

9 Will Chudley

1 Ben Moon

2 Luke Cowan-Dickie

3 Harry Williams

4 Sam Skinner

5 Jonny Hill

6 Dave Ewers

7 Don Armand

8 Sam Simmonds

 

16 Jack Yeandle

17 Carl Rimmer

18 Greg Holmes

19 Mitch Lees

20 Thomas Waldrom

21 Stuart Townsend

22 Joe Simmonds

23 James Short

 

 

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