Ali Hepher believes his Exeter Chiefs side face the ‘perfect test’ when Sale Sharks provide the opposition at a packed-out Sandy Park tomorrow (3pm).
With just two rounds of the scheduled Aviva Premiership season remaining, the defending champions already know they will have home advantage when the play-offs kick into action midway through next month.
However, the chance to top the table – for the first time – after 22 rounds, plus the intense battle for a place within the first team ranks means the Chiefs are fully focused on the task ahead.
The Sharks, meanwhile, will arrived in Devon knowing a victory of sorts for them will not only keep alive their hopes of a potential top four finish, but will most certainly guarantee Champions Cup rugby will be heading to the AJ Bell Stadium next season.
And it’s those ingredients which Hepher believes will help to stir up a healthy on-field mix in what should be a mouth-watering encounter.
“It’s the perfect test for us going into these last few weeks,” said Hepher. “Sale have been physical, aggressive and abrasive over the last few weeks, so we’ve got to make sure that we’re on the front foot from the outset, play the style of rugby we want to play, and be nice and direct so that we capitalise on any space that we get.”
Keen to get the feel for what will effectively become knock-out rugby come the semi-finals, Hepher says it’s vital the Chiefs get as much preparation and experience of those kinds of situations to help get them ready for the next stages of battle.
“That’s the mentality we have to start playing at,” he added. Obviously, preparation for that semi-final is going to get tight and it’s who pushes through in those tight moments, and it’s important that we are at the mode because Sale are coming here desperate for points and they have everything to fight for.
“It makes it quite simple for ourselves. Although we don’t necessarily need the points on the table, if you look at it like that, the important thing is the guys remain ultra-competitive about keeping the jersey as they go through. They have to fight, they have to scrap, and their level of performance will be scrutinised and we have to see who is performing best when it comes to those semi-finals.”
Hepher believes that competition alone for a role within the team will help to ensure the Chiefs hit the pitch at full throttle, not just tomorrow, but in the coming weeks.
“The challenge is there for the boys,” continued the coach. “It’s probably been there for a few weeks now, but it’s important that they clue into their levels of performance. If they do that, then they will give themselves a great chance of being involved in that semi-final.
“We won’t look too far ahead, we’ll stick more to the day-to-day running of things, but we will push them hard in both training and in
games. As Rob [Baxter] says, conditioning comes from training, but that top end stuff comes from being highly competitive in games.
“Over the next few weeks we will really look to stretch ourselves on that front because we know that will put us in the best position for when the semi-final comes around.”
Victorious in their last seven games in all competitions, the Chiefs appear to be hitting form at the right time, a point underlined with their 45-5 win at lowly London Irish last time out.
“We challenged the guys before that game to really go out and prove a point, which is what they did from the first minute,” explained Hepher. “Irish were in good form and fighting for everything, yet we overcame that threat very well.
“It will be the same again this weekend, so it’s important we look to fine tune things in these big games and make sure we are in the fight, because when it does get tight in the semi-final we are battle hardened and ready to take advantage when the opportunity comes around.”
Team news for the Chiefs sees Director of Rugby Rob Baxter make a number of changes to the side on duty against the Exiles a fortnight ago. In the back division, Sam Hill comes in for the injured Ian Whitten (broken hand), while Joe Simmonds gets the nod over Gareth Steenson at fly-half.
Up front, Alec Hepburn and Jack Yeandle come into the front-row for Ben Moon and Luke Cowan-Dickie, both of whom start on the bench, while in the engine-room Sam Skinner returns to partner Mitch Lees.
15 Lachie Turner
14 Jack Nowell
13 Henry Slade
12 Sam Hill
11 Santiago Cordero
10 Joe Simmonds
9 Nic White
1 Alec Hepburn
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Tomas Francis
4 Mitch Lees
5 Sam Skinner
6 Dave Ewers
7 Don Armand
8 Sam Simmonds
16 Luke Cowan-Dickie
17 Ben Moon
18 Greg Holmes
19 Dave Dennis
20 Thomas Waldrom
21 Stuart Townsend
22 Gareth Steenson
23 Tom O’Flaherty
Member since: 5th January 2016
Hi, I am Mark Stevens, Media and Communications Manager for the Exeter Chiefs