With the new Formula One season set to race into gear this weekend, so Rob Baxter is looking for his own side to maintain pole position in the Aviva Premiership with just five rounds of the scheduled season remaining.
Tomorrow, the defending champions make their shortest trip of the season to local rivals Bath in a mouth-watering Round 18 fixture at the Recreation Ground (7:45pm).
Buoyed by recent wins over Northampton Saints and Saracens, the Chiefs are seven points clear of next-best Wasps at the summit and victory against their nearest and dearest will edge them ever closer to securing one of the prized top two spots – and with it the all-important advantage of home surroundings for a potential semi-final.
Ahead of kick-off in the Roman City, Director of Rugby Baxter has called on his players to make the most of these closing rounds and put their foot down in their quest to secure vital league points.
“If you look at things, we’ve got six or seven games left in our season, if we were to make it to the final again,” said Baxter. “That’s minutes of your life. It’s something like eight hours of rugby at best, so if you can’t get excited and commit fully to those eight hours, then there’s something wrong.
“I’ve said to the guys this week, if we want to be a top four club then we have to show those qualities. So far we’ve done that and we’re in that top four, but once you are there the next target has to be to try and force a home semi-final, so every point you pick up now are important points.
“I want our guys to be really accelerating there way towards the end of the season because the truth is, we are top of the Premiership, and if you are top at this stage you should be setting some high goals and the highest of those has to be to produce a level of performance every week that you can be proud of.”
Although the Chiefs were without a fixture last week because of the cancellation of the Anglo-Welsh Cup Final due to the adverse weather conditions, the Devonians will be delighted to have their international contingent back in harness for the final run-in.
Prop Tomas Francis and back-row forwards Don Armand and Sam Simmonds, all of whom were in Six Nations action last weekend, all start for the visitors in a powerful looking Exeter line-up.
Equally, Bath will have their own star names back after international commitments and Baxter knows from past experience that trips to the Recreation Ground are far from easy.
“The reality is we don’t have a great record against Bath,” warned Baxter. “They have been one of the teams who during our time in the Premiership have held the better record. Obviously, that is something we are keen to address but, at the same time, I can’t deny that haven’t deserved those victories because the truth is more often than not they have outperformed us on the day.
“For us heading into Friday’s game, the most important thing is to make sure we focus fully on ourselves and the performance we want to bring to the game. Yes, it’s great to have some of our international players back, as well as a few others who are back fit again, but as I said now is the time I want us to start really putting the foot down.
“I don’t want us to be a team who are clinging on trying to keep the Premiership, I want us to go out there and look to play well and put in a performance that merits us getting into those latter stages of the competition.”
Changes from Exeter’s last outing in the Premiership against Saracens at Sandy Park see club captain Jack Yeandle come in at hooker in place of Luke Cowan-Dickie, who picked up an ankle injury in training this week, while Sam Simmonds starts at No.8.
Behind the scrum, Joe Simmonds gets another chance to shine at fly-half ahead of Gareth Steenson, while Ian Whitten gets the nod on the wing over former Bath player Olly Woodburn.
Aussie international Dave Dennis, fresh from an impressive return to action against Newcastle Falcons in the Anglo-Welsh Cup semi-final, is included in a Premiership squad for the first time in September, while there are also inclusions for young hooker Jack Innard and Argentinian international Santiago Cordero.
15 Phil Dollman
14 Ian Whitten
13 Henry Slade
12 Sam Hill
11 Lachie Turner
10 Joe Simmonds
9 Nic White
1 Alec Hepburn
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Tomas Francis
4 Sam Skinner
5 Jonny Hill
6 Dave Ewers
7 Don Armand
8 Sam Simmonds
16 Jack Innard
17 Ben Moon
18 Greg Holmes
19 Mitch Lees
20 Dave Dennis
21 Stu Townsend
22 Gareth Steenson
23 Santiago Cordero