Rob Baxter has called on his Exeter Chiefs side to use home advantage to the full when they play host to reigning English and European champions Saracens at Sandy Park on Sunday (3pm).
Having kicked off the new season with a 25-20 loss at Wasps last weekend, Baxter is hoping a return to home comforts can provide the necessary spark to get his side’s season up and running.
Standing in the way of the Chiefs, however, will be a Sarries side who not only kicked off their title defence with an impressive 38-3 win over Worcester Warriors last weekend, but who also downed Baxter’s men on three occasions last term, including the Aviva Premiership final back in May.
Exeter’s leader knows it will be another testing battle for his troops, but insists there is no huge pressure being put on his players ahead of kick-off.
“In a lot of ways this game is a low pressure game for us,” said Baxter. “ I know that sounds a bit strange because we didn’t beat Saracens last season – they were the only side to win here at Sandy Park, we lost quite heavily at their place, and then they beat us in the final – so in some ways it’s a great opportunity to just go and challenge ourselves and see if we are a bit closer to them than last season.
“For me, the pressure on us is to make sure we put in a really good home performance in front of our fans. I want it to be one that they can really believe in and one that we can really believe in. That’s far more important to me than anything else in that first home game.
“I want this weekend to be a sell-out and I want every person who comes in here to come again, simply because they lived and breathed the game with the team. That’s what creates a good home record, that’s what creates a good home base, and that’s what creates a great atmosphere here.
“It’s about showing people that we mean business and that the 80 minutes here on a weekend are the most important part of the week, both as individuals and as a team.”
Although defeated at Wasps, Baxter refused to be too downbeat about the final outcome, safe in the knowledge that his team were not a million miles away from recording a notable scalp in Round One.
“When you lose by a score, you tend to look at every mistake and think is that the one that costs us the game,” added Baxter. “You look at in detail at everything and there is no hiding place for anyone.
“On the flip side, anyone who watched the game will know we had more than one try-scoring opportunity, which we didn’t take, and we also conceded a couple of soft tries. Knock off one score, score one more ourselves and all of a sudden you’re looking at a comfortable 10 or 12 point win away from home at Wasps.
“In reality we wouldn’t have played much different, but if you talk about making one pass or one tackle, all of a sudden emotionally you will feel a lot different. We’ve talked a lot about that this week and about the level we were performing at – and how close we were to winning the game.
“Yes, we were disappointed to lose the game, but seasons are not built on the result of one games. They are built on the levels of performance you put in week in, week out, so the important thing is we put in a really high level of performance this weekend and then be prepared to take what you deserve after that.”
Certainly Saracens – the only side to win at Sandy Park in 20 months – will offer the acid test for Baxter, who is quick to highlight the strengths of Sunday’s visitors.
“The best thing to say about Saracens is they have learnt to be very comfortable with themselves, which in turn allows them to be very good and very consistent,” continued Baxter. “It’s a big learn for us in a lot of ways because they have lost semi-finals and finals in the past, yet they have never run away and thought they have to rip everything up.
“They’ve always been comfortable in keeping the parts of their game that are successful with and making sure the whole squad are very good at those successful parts. On top of that have been slowly adding some stardust, partly down to quality of individual players, and you can see how comfortable the team are together.
“What I have seen from Saracens this season is that they look like they have done exactly the same again, which is work very hard on the things they are good at, and that in turn gives them a platform from which individual players can create havoc. Right across their backline they can can do that, while the forwards can break tackles from anywhere, so it’s the perfect balance in a lot of ways.”
Team news for the Chiefs sees Baxter make three changes to his starting XV. Up front summer signing Greg Holmes has been given the nod over Harry Williams at tight-head; England international Geoff Parling is promoted from the bench ahead of Mitch Lees to skipper the side; while behind Lachie Turner comes in on the wing for Ollie Woodburn, who is nursing a knock after the Wasps game.
15 Phil Dollman
14 Lachie Turner
13 Ollie Devoto
12 Sam Hill
11 Ian Whitten
10 Henry Slade
9 Will Chudley
1 Ben Moon
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Greg Holmes
4 Geoff Parling (capt)
5 Damian Welch
6 Don Armand
7 Julian Salvi
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Jack Yeandle
17 Alec Hepburn
18 Harry Williams
19 Mitch Lees
20 Dave Dennis
21 Dave Lewis
22 Gareth Steenson
23 Max Bodilly