Exeter Chiefs Director of Rugby Rob Baxter has called for another step up in standards from his side as they prepare to welcome Saracens to Sandy Park on Sunday (3pm).
The varying effects of ‘Storm Emma’ and the ‘Beast from the East’ have meant the Round 17 clash in this season’s Aviva Premiership has been put back by 24 hours, but Baxter is none the less readying his troops for a key encounter between the league’s top two sides.
Buoyed by a return to winning ways last weekend against Northampton Saints, now the Chiefs leader is looking to use that success as the springboard to build momentum heading into the business end of the season.
Thomas Waldrom’s last-gasp score not only ensured all five points for the Devonians a week ago, but with Saracens losing at home to Leicester Tigers 24 hours later, it meant the reigning champions regained pole position with just six rounds of the regular season to go.
Out in front, the Chiefs know they are in control of their own destiny moving forward, this despite suffering three successive Premiership losses prior to last weekend.
Likening his side to that of a Formula One car this week, Baxter said: “What we have to remember is we’re still top of the Premiership. We’re a little bit like an F1 car, which has picked up a bit of an engine problem mid-race, but having made the odd tweak here and there, I’m expecting us to be flying along nicely again now.”
A nice analogy from the Chiefs boss, who also confirmed a few home truths in recent weeks, plus a significant step up in intensity - both in training and in games - has helped to alleviate any remaining issues within the camp.
“The last three of four weeks have been a bit of a rollercoaster,” added Baxter. “There is no doubt we start the season well and we had great intensity. Also, we had a good pre-season, the players took on board lessons from last year where we didn’t have a great pre-season or a strong opening, this despite us going on to later win the Premiership.
“For all of us, that was a real indicator and real reminder that you can still set high standards and expect more from yourselves, even if you have been successful before that. And, as I said, a lot of what we have done this season has been good and had the intensity, focus and drive that we ask for.
“In hindsight, there was always going to be a period where that would wain a little bit - and as coached we perhaps didn’t pick up on that as quickly as we should have, and we were guilty of waiting too long before putting our foot down on a home truths. If we’re honest, that all probably resulted in the Worcester performance, where we played OK within our systems, but without ever really hammering home things. In the end, what happens is we lose 6-5 at home.
“Thankfully, we addressed that pretty quickly and it resulted in the Wasps performance, where you could see we were noticeably better. Come the end, we were one score away from beating a top four side, away from home. Also, anyone who watched that game will realise we had some tough calls go against us that day. It was not like it was one 50-50 call, but more four or five, all of which were very important calls. Regardless of that, did we deserve to win the game? Maybe yes, maybe no. However, we were close and it was what I’d call a par performance.”
Baxter continued: “The problem after that is despite getting back to a performance level we could be happy with, we then had to face a Northampton side on the back of three losses. And even though we are a team who have won the Premiership, have played in two finals, and you have people telling you that you’ve not lost foursomes in a row for goodness knows how long, as much as you try and shield from that, it does play on your mind.
“In that respect, the Northampton performance was related to the other two because although we did start well and did a lot of good things, we did get edgy about winning a game of rugby. As I said, the intensity levels were good from the start, but we were guilty of snatching at things, dropping balls and some of our defensive efforts were not what we are about and led to some long-range tries being scored against us.
“That in turn meant we looked edgy and all of a sudden were 13 points down with ten minutes to play. However, the one thing that goes when you find yourselves in that position is that edginess and you only have one thought, which is to go out and try and win the game. You saw then for that last ten minutes what I would call genuine Exeter Chiefs rugby, where we looked comfortable, composed, stopped making the mistakes we had been making and we built concerted pressure, which in turn resulted in the tries that won us the game.”
Now, Baxter will be hoping his troops pick up for battle from where they left off against the Saints and look to establish further daylight between themselves and the Londoners at the summit of the table.
Team news for the Chiefs sees Ben Moon and Tomas Francis come into the front-row, Dave Ewers - fresh from signing a new two-year deal with the club - is restored to the back-row, while behind there are starts for Nic White, Joe Simmonds, Henry Slade and Phil Dollman.
On the bench, club captain Jack Yeandle is back after an ankle injury, while England international Sam Simmonds is also included having recovered from a shoulder injury sustained in the Six Nations clash with Wales.
15 Phil Dollman
14 Lachie Turner
13 Henry Slade
12 Sam Hill
11 Olly Woodburn
10 Joe Simmonds
9 Nic White
1 Ben Moon
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Tomas Francis
4 Sam Skinner
5 Jonny Hill
6 Dave Ewers
7 Don Armand
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Jack Yeandle
17 Alec Hepburn
18 Greg Holmes
19 Mitch Lees
20 Sam Simmonds
21 Stu Townsend
22 Gareth Steenson
23 Ian Whitten
Member since: 5th January 2016
Hi, I am Mark Stevens, Media and Communications Manager for the Exeter Chiefs