Arch rivals Exeter and Wasps lock horns at Sandy Park on Sunday (3pm) with Chiefs’ Director of Rugby Rob Baxter insisting the clash will provide a decent marker of where his side stand a month into the new season.
With the defending champions top of the tree after three rounds of the Aviva Premiership season, all appears healthy enough in the Chiefs camp as they look to press on.
Back-to-back, bonus point victories over London Irish and Worcester Warriors helped to quickly put to bed the disappointment of the club’s narrow opening day defeat to Gloucester at Kingsholm.
This weekend, however, the Chiefs face arguably their toughest assignment so far against a Wasps outfit, who will not be looking to enact some revenge for last May’s Premiership final defeat by their hosts, but also get their own campaign back on track after last weekend’s home defeat to Harlequins.
Baxter is expecting another great occasion between the two sides who, let’s be honest, have got to know one another very well in recent seasons, having traded blows in the Premiership, European Champions Cup and Anglo-Welsh Cup.
“The truth is it’s going to be a battle between motivations, isn’t it?” said Baxter. “Everything says Wasps have the bigger reasons to be motivated. They lost a semi-final down here two years ago, then last season we beat them in the Premiership Final, so you’d think all the motivational tools and weapons are in Wasps court, which they potentially are.
“That said, it’s also a great challenge for us. We have openly talked this week about that as a group and now our challenge is to show we are just as highly motivated against a team that is stinging from a couple of important losses in the last couple of years.
“Personally, I’d still like to think our motivation, which drives us each day, is that we are a top side who want to be top end of the league and that getting to finals is not a one off for us. Those sorts of things I’d like to think are big motivational tools for us.”
Having never won at Sandy Park in the Premiership, Wasps are well aware of the task ahead of them. Equally, the visitors did glean a share of the spoils from their last visit to Devon last season, the game ended 35-35, and Baxter is duly wary of the threat posed by their counterparts right across the field.
“It’s a big game for both of us, but neither club’s season will be defined by a win of a loss at this stage,” added Baxter. “If you remember, we lost to them in the very first game of last season, then when we were on great form later on, we drew with them here, so we didn’t actually beat them in the regular season.
“Would a win this week make us feel good about ourselves? Yes, of course.
“Will it make us feel good about ourselves, would it pleases us as a management group, and would our crowd enjoy it? Again, yes it would. However, we can all find good reasons why a win would be good. Dai [Young], I’m sure, will be saying the same to his players, but for me it’s more what you do day-by-day and week-by-week, which ultimately defines your season.
“Right now, I think we feel pretty good about what we are doing day-by-day and week-by-week, but at the same time games like the one at the weekend do give you a decent marker of where you are at. As I said, we’re expecting another hugely competitive game, like it always is against Wasps, but if we stick to our game plan and do what we want to achieve, then we give ourselves every chance of being successful.
“What I don’t want us to do is get panicky or edgy in any way, because it’s not the be-all-and-end-all at the end of the day. It’s what we can produce over the course of the season which will ultimately tell us how good we have done.”
After last week’s 41-10 success on the road at Worcester, injuries have forced Baxter into a couple of changes in personnel. Captain Jack Yeandle (knee) and full-back Phil Dollman (calf) both sit out this encounter, so Elvis Taione and Lachie Turner come into the starting XV. Taione’s inclusion, plus that of Sam Skinner for Jonny Hill in the second row, mean they are both in line to make their first-ever starts in the Premiership.
On the bench, summer signing Toby Salmon and Tom Hendrickson get their first involvements in a Premiership squad, while there are also call-ups for Shaun Malton and Julian Salvi.
15 Lachie Turner
14 Jack Nowell
13 Henry Slade
12 Ian Whitten
11 Olly Woodburn
10 Gareth Steenson (capt)
9 Nic White
1 Carl Rimmer
2 Elvis Taione
3 Harry Williams
4 Mitch Lees
5 Sam Skinner
6 Dave Dennis
7 Don Armand
8 Sam Simmonds
16 Shaun Malton
17 Ben Moon
18 Tomas Francis
19 Toby Salmon
20 Julian Salvi
21 Stuart Townsend
22 Tom Hendrickson
23 Max Bodilly