Exeter Chiefs return to Aviva Premiership action on Sunday (1pm) with head coach Rob Baxter keen for his side to pick up from where they left off just a month ago.
In what was seen as a testing block of fixtures against top four rivals Leicester Tigers, Bath and Saracens, the Devon club emerged from that sequence of games with a profitable 11 points out of a possible 15.
That return not only helped inflict some timely damage on those around the Chiefs, but it also propelled Baxter’s side firmly into the top four and in control of their own destiny to reach this season’s play-offs.
On Sunday, however, the threat remains just as large as table-topping Wasps arrive at a packed Sandy Park looking to not only inflict a league double on their hosts but, at the same, record a first-ever victory of any kind at the home of the Chiefs.
Baxter acknowledged this week it’s a huge fixture for both clubs, but is confident his players will rise to the occasion and maintain their impressive form of late.
“It’s exactly the type of game you want to be involved in because you can really affect what is going on in the season,” said Baxter. “Over the last block of Premiership fixtures, we had more opportunities than anyone else to effect what was going on in the top four.
“Looking at how things went, we did that very well. However, we’ve got to keep driving home those same qualities and show that same intensity when Wasps visit here on Sunday. We know it’s an important game, there’s going to be a big crowd, it’s live on TV, and that it’s third versus first, but for me those are the kind of ingredients you want for a game of this magnitude.
“We’ve got back into the top four now and our aim is to stay there and cement our place. As I said, the biggest thing we’ve done is get back in the top four and if you’re in the top four, you have an opportunity to win the Premiership at the end of the season. I want us to have that opportunity to win the Premiership, so these are the kind of fixtures that keep the season in your hands. I want us as a club to strive to keep our season in our hands for as many weeks as possible.”
Although the visitors will be somewhat depleted due to international call-ups, Baxter knows the Midlanders still possess a formidable looking outfit and that it will be much changed from that which visited Exeter just a fortnight ago in the Anglo-Welsh Cup. On that occasion, the Chiefs triumphed 52-5, underlining the strength in depth that now exists within the Exeter playing ranks.
Baxter insists he and his players are reading very little into that result, adding: “Wasps will be the first to admit that on that day they had a much weaker 15 than us on the field. This week we’ve not really talked too much about that game or that result, simply because we are aware that the Wasps Premiership animal is very successful and that they are the team everyone is trying to chase down.
“What has impressed me about them this season is that they were genuinely upset to get knocked out of two semi-finals last season and that they went away in pre-season and clearly did something about it, whereas that was something we perhaps didn’t do. Now we realise that, we are the team trying to chase them down.
“As I said, you have to give them credit because they didn’t come out of last season and think we did well to reach two semi-finals, they wanted to push on. We’re doing that at the moment and it’s our job to chase them down and show that we too have learnt lessons from earlier in the season. We’ve now got up to speed, we’re driving forward, and now we have to show that we weren’t happy to have lost a Premiership final.”
Such fighting talk underlines the mindset of Baxter and the Chiefs, who are clearly keen to maintain their status amongst English rugby’s leading lights.
“Results follow performances and our performance levels in the last Premiership block were very good,” added Baxter. “There were elements of the Saracens game that were frustrating, everyone is aware of that, but at the same time why were Saracens the team chasing us down?
“Well, it was because we went there and played very well and those are the important things to remember. Ultimately, that is what we will have do again this weekend, we have to be the team that plays well. We won’t ask for any more than that of our players because if they turn up in the right place mentally, physically they look very good, all they have to really do is go out there and lay it all on the field and put in a performance that gives you the opportunity to win the game.
“Wasps, we know, are a good side and they come here striving to the same, so that is the battle in essence. It will be then down to the 15 guys on the pitch who are going to be more intense, more physical and who control more of the game, that will win the day, What we have to do is make sure we work as hard as we can for it to be us.”
As expected, Baxter recalls a number of his frontline stars for the game having given a number of them the past fortnight off during the Anglo-Welsh Cup.
However, one man who featured against both Wasps and Bristol in the Cup was Sam Simmonds, who has been rewarded for two notable displays with his maiden Premiership start at No.8. He will pack down in a back-row alongside the experienced duo of Dave Dennis and Don Armand.
Ahead of them, the front-row comprises Messrs Moon, Cowan-Dickie and Holmes, while Mitch Lees and Jonny Hill offer notable force in the second row.
In the back division, Gareth Steenson skippers the side alongside fellow half-back Jack Maunder; Ollie Devoto and Ian Whitten team up in the midfield, while the back three is made up of Olly Woodburn, James Short and Phil Dollman.
On the bench, the Chiefs are hopeful to include Henry Slade, who despite being retained by England as a travelling replacement for their clash with Wales in Cardiff tomorrow, should be available for action on Sunday.
Supporters who have yet to get tickets for this game are advised to do so sharply as the game is very close to selling out. Tickets can be obtained online via the club’s official website
CHIEFS SIDE TO FACE WASPS
15 Phil Dollman
14 Olly Woodburn
13 Ian Whitten
12 Ollie Devoto
11 James Short
10 Gareth Steenson (capt)
9 Jack Maunder
1 Ben Moon
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Greg Holmes
4 Mitch Lees
5 Jonny Hill
6 Dave Dennis
7 Don Armand
8 Sam Simmonds
16 Jack Yeandle
17 Carl Rimmer
18 Harry Wiliams
19 Sam Skinner
20 Tom Johnson
21 Stuart Townsend
22 Henry Slade
23 Lachie Turner
Member since: 5th January 2016
Hi, I am Mark Stevens, Media and Communications Manager for the Exeter Chiefs