Exeter Chiefs may have left it late to sink rivals Bath last weekend, but head coach Rob Baxter is calling for a fast start from his team ahead of tomorrow’s Aviva Premiership clash with Saracens at a sold out Allianz Park (3pm).
Back-to-back victories over the festive period have helped to lift the Devonians to third in the standings at the halfway point, but it’s this weekend’s tussle with the reigning English and European champions that should prove the ‘acid test’ of how far the Chiefs have come in recent weeks.
Last season Sarries got the better of Baxter’s men on three different occasions, including the Premiership final at Twickenham in May, and they followed it up this season when they inflicted another loss on the Chiefs in September when they triumphed 34-13 at Sandy Park.
In all of those meetings it was the Londoners who started the brighter, gaining the ascendancy and early dominance they craved to set their winning platform.
Ahead of kick-off in this latest match-up, the experienced Exeter coach has talked about addressing the issue, underlining to his players the need for them to match, if not better, their rivals during the opening exchanges.
"I don't mind admitting that Saracens have dealt with us very well the last few times we've played them," said Baxter. "They were good down here against us earlier this season and started so well we never really got ourselves in the game. The last time we went to Allianz Park they did the same to us.
"We have definitely got to improve our performance levels from the last couple of times we've played them. We've got to hit the pitch in the right fettle right from the start and not let the game get difficult for us on the scoreboard too early.
"We've fought our way into the top four, it's another top-four clash, we've come through two of them in the last two weeks and it's not a bad run of games to be on."
In recent weeks Baxter has spoken of the importance of his side being part of the division’s top four entering into the second half of the season - and says it’s vital that his players maintain the form which has seen them win five consecutive top flight fixtures.
“I’m pleased we have pushed back into the top four because the destiny of our Premiership season is back in our hands - and that is how you want it to be,” added Baxter. “Now it’s about collecting enough points to make sure we remain in that top four and that we’re involved in the big games come the end of the season.
“Obviously plenty of things will happen between now and the end of the season, but you've got to look at these as opportunities; it's an opportunity for us to go out and show some really good qualities and do something a little bit special within the league.
"We've got ourselves back in a situation where determining whether we're in the top four is in our hands, so we've got to make the most of that opportunity and look at them as enjoyable challenges not something to worry about. That's how I'd like us to progress in the rest of the season."
Saracens, however, on their own turf are a tough proposition and whilst Baxter and the Chiefs know exactly what to expect from the champions, stopping them in their tracks is another matter altogether.
“Sometimes they get unfairly labelled as being one dimensional in the things they do, but what they do have is a good structure and good organisation, along with a lot of good players who buy into that structure and who are also able to break out of it very quickly to great effect,” continued Baxter.
“That not only allows them to maximise their effort and work-rate, but they also take advantage of mistakes you make and they have quality decision-makers who can really punish you. That’s why it’s important we turn up with the right attitude from minute one on the weekend - and that our energy levels and our focus are spot on.”
Despite claiming a first-ever victory at Bath’s Recreation Ground last time out, Baxter has made changes to his winning formula. Up front, Carl Rimmer, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Greg Holmes make up a new-look front-row, Ollie Atkins and Geoff Parling come into the second row, while England international Tom Johnson makes his first Premiership start since New Year’s Day at Northampton in 2016.
Behind, England star Henry Slade is fit again to take his place in the midfield alongside Sam Hill, while James Short is rewarded for his match-winning tries a week ago by starting on the wing against his former club.
15 Phil Dollman
14 Jack Nowell
13 Sam Hill
12 Henry Slade
11 James Short
10 Gareth Steenson (capt)
9 Will Chudley
1 Carl Rimmer
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Greg Holmes
4 Ollie Atkins
5 Geoff Parling
6 Don Armand
7 Tom Johnson
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Jack Yeandle
17 Ben Moon
18 Harry Williams
19 Mitch Lees
20 Dave Dennis
21 Jack Maunder
22 Ian Whitten
23 Michele Campagnaro