Ali Hepher believes Exeter Chiefs still have areas to work on as their Aviva Premiership season heads towards the final straight.
Undefeated in the top flight since late October, the Chiefs have produced an impressive run of results that has not only propelled them to second in the current standings, but has put them firmly on course for home advantage in the end of season play-offs.
With just five rounds of the scheduled season remaining, three of which will be played at Sandy Park, Hepher says it’s imperative his side not only maintain their current performance levels, but in turn also up the ante as the season reaches its business end.
Tomorrow, Devon’s finest welcome rivals Sale Sharks to the Westcountry in a contest Hepher says has become their “biggest” of the season so far.
“Although we’ve done well in the Anglo-Welsh Cup in the past fortnight, we’ve also had one eye on the Premiership and this weekend’s game,” said Hepher. “We’ve been working hard behind the scenes on a number of things, whilst at the same time taking the learns from recent games into the end of the season.
“For us, that hard work starts this weekend. Our priority all week has been to train well and push through to the weekend, which has now become the biggest fixture of the season for us.
“We know Sale will be physical; they’ll be competitive; and that they will have been preparing for us for the last two or three weeks. They’ll want to come after us, so we have to make sure we combat that and go back at them with even more.
“It’ll be a good contest, no questions about that, but we have to focus on ourselves and put ourselves in a good frame of mind to perform in what is a hugely important Premiership fixture for us.”
Certainly, the Chiefs will be looking to replicate their display the last time they took to the field in the Premiership. That was away to Leicester earlier this month where, on a wet night in the East Midlands, they entered the Tigers lair and emerged not only with a victory, but all five league points.
“Our last block of games was really good for us,” added Hepher. “To get 18 points out of a possible 20, we were really pleased with. The performance at Leicester was right up there, but now the challenge is having rested a lot of those guys, they need to come out on Saturday and hit that same level straight away.
“We’ve only got this weekend before we have another week off, so it’s very much as isolated fixture that we can really go and attack.
“As I said, the Leicester performance was outstanding, but now we want to improve beyond that. Tactically we got our game plan spot on that night. We scored four tries, we got what will be a hugely influential bonus point, and it’s put us in a great position moving forward. Now, it’s about not only maintaining that performance, but also increasing it even further over these final few games.”
With the Chiefs bolstered by the return of those players who have been featuring in the RBS Six Nations Championship, Hepher says competition for places within the Exeter first team has been cranked up another notch.
“Having that competition for places is fantastic,” said Hepher. “Players who start this weekend know they need to put in a shift, it’s as simple as that. They know if they slip off the standards demanded of them, there is someone else within the squad capable of taking over and increasing performance.
“It keeps everyone on their toes, which in turn drives standards and selection. As coaches it gives you headaches, but it’s the right ones to have.”
Team news for the Chiefs is headed up by the return of England star Jack Nowell, who will start tomorrow’s game on the right wing. He is the sole change to the Exeter back division from that which beat Leicester in the Premiership earlier this month.
Up front, the pack from that game is also virtually unchanged with the only difference coming in the front-row where Ben Moon gets the nod at loosehead over Carl Rimmer. Don Armand once again skippers the side from the back-row.
On the bench, Tomas Francis is back from Six Nations duty, whilst the Simmonds brothers – Sam and Joe – both get another opportunity to shine following impressive displays in the Anglo-Welsh Cup.
15 Phil Dollman
14 Jack Nowell
13 Ian Whitten
12 Ollie Devoto
11 Olly Woodburn
10 Henry Slade
9 Stuart Townsend
1 Ben Moon
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Harry Williams
4 Mitch Lees
5 Geoff Parling
6 Kai Horstmann
7 Don Armand (capt)
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Jack Yeandle
17 Carl Rimmer
18 Tomas Francis
19 Jonny Hill
20 Sam Simmonds
21 Jack Maunder
22 Joe Simmonds
23 James Short
Member since: 5th January 2016
Hi, I am Mark Stevens, Media and Communications Manager for the Exeter Chiefs