Rob Baxter says his Exeter Chiefs side are facing a pivotal month ahead as they look to strength their position at the summit of the Aviva Premiership.
The reigning champions head into tomorrow’s Round 14 battle against visiting Worcester Warriors at Sandy Park (2pm), looking to build on their five-point advantage over next-best Saracens at the top of the table.
Having used the past fortnight in the Anglo-Welsh Cup to not only recharge a number of his frontline stars, Baxter has also seen others first-team stars come to the fore as Devon’s finest progressed into the last four of the competition for a fourth successive year.
Getting so many of his squad primed and ready for battle over the coming weeks has been a key objective for Baxter, particularly as he has to contend with five of his regulars being away on Six Nations duty this weekend, plus a number of others still battling their way back to fitness after various injuries.
It was around this time last season, however, that the Chiefs started to really find their rhythm, making the most of rivals also losing star names, before producing a swath of five-point victories that led them ultimately to their first-ever English title.
Addressing the media this week, the Chiefs Director of Rugby said he was keen for a repeat performance, even though there could potentially be more distractions this time round.
“There have potentially been all kinds of distractions going into this week and the next few weeks,” said Baxter. “One is we’re coming out of a month of playing in different competitions like Europe and the Anglo Welsh. Another is we have a number of players away on international duty and - like any squad - we’ve picked up the odd injury, so suddenly we’ve become a different group to say a month ago.
“What we’ve said to the guys this week is simple - you can allow those distractions to get in your way or you can really zone in and attack these next few weeks week. If you focus on yourselves and what you want to achieve, teams that can do that are the teams that can make real strides over this next month.
“Teams who get distracted are the ones who get hurt the most. What we have to do is avoid getting distracted and talk about the positives we can gain over this next month, which is to cement ourselves even further within that top four. That will take some doing, we know that, just because of the tough fixtures we have coming up. However the reality is if you want to be Premiership champions, you have to deal with times like this.”
Certainly the strength in depth within the Chiefs squad has been a telling factor in recent seasons and Baxter is confident his current crop of stars, plus those he is planning to use in the future, can cope with the demands being asked of them.
“We had Wilhelm Van Der Sluys come back last week to help thickening us out in the second row, it was the same with Ollie Devoto coming back as well. Santiago [Cordero] coming in and playing so well on his debut, there were lots of positives to take from last week.
“As I’ve said, though, I’m comfortable with where we are as a group. The bigger picture of what is going on here at Exeter Chiefs looks very comfortable to me. I like the look of the squad we have not just now, or for the next 12 months, but for the next two or three years. But on top of building that squad that can mean we are a good, solid Premiership team for a number of years, we’ve got to keep talking about how we drive through that top end quality.
“There has to be a real emotional desire amongst us all to be a top end club. That’s the day-by-day, week-by week battles we have to win because ultimately what will die us to stay top of the Premiership is what we do every day. That has to be the focus for the players because the minute you try and get the enjoyment in before the hard work starts, then you find yourself on a slippery slope and going nowhere.”
Hard work and the ability to never give up has been ket facets of the Chiefs make-up for some time and they were evident in last weekend’s 43-20 win over Saracens in the Anglo-Welsh Cup. Knowing they needed a try bonus success, Exeter did not disappoint in front of a near capacity home crowd.
“I can’t praise the attitude of the players enough,” continued Baxter. “They saw on Friday night that they still had something to fight for. They came in the next day knowing they had to score all five points on a day when the wind and rain were coming in. Then, they had to do all of that against Saracens, who traditionally have the stingiest defence around.
“They did all of that in the first half, but then they had to come in at half time and take in from the coaching staff that four tries wasn’t going to be enough if they wanted a home semi-final. Not only did they then have to go out and keep scoring more than Newcastle, who were already on four tries in their game and two ahead overall, but they had to keep Saracens out at the same time.
“What I liked watching the last five, six minutes of the game was how our guys went from defending on their own line to getting the ball down the other end, five metres out and then driving in what proved to be a crucial score from a line-out. It’s passages of play like that which can often define seasons and in this case it defined how we now have a home semi-final.”
As expected, Baxter has recalled a number of his key stars for tomorrow’s visit of the Warriors. However, there is a Premiership debut for Argentinian international Cordero on the right wing. He lines up in a back division which will be skippered by Gareth Steenson.
Up front, Aussie international Greg Holmes comes into the front-row, while Thomas Waldrom starts at No.8 with Sam Simmonds joining Harry Williams, Alec Hepburn, Jack Nowell and Tomas Francis in featuring in the Six Nations clash between England and Wales at Twickenham. On the bench, England Under-20s prop Marcus Street gets his first-ever call-up for Premiership action, while Devoto is also included after scoring twice in last weekend’s win.
15 Lachie Turner
14 Santiago Cordero
13 Ian Whitten
12 Sam Hill
11 Olly Woodburn
10 Gareth Steenson (capt)
9 Nic White
1 Ben Moon
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Greg Holmes
4 Mitch Lees
5 Jonny Hill
6 Dave Ewers
7 Don Armand
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Shaun Malton
17 Moray Low
18 Marcus Street
19 Toby Salmon
20 Matt Kvesic
21 Will Chudley
22 Joe Simmonds
23 Ollie Devoto
Member since: 5th January 2016
Hi, I am Mark Stevens, Media and Communications Manager for the Exeter Chiefs