TOP BAR - Fixtures

Chiefs side to face Bath

Exeter Chiefs will be looking to maintain their winning sequence in the Aviva Premiership when they play host to rivals Bath at a sold-out Sandy Park tomorrow (3:15pm).

Successive victories over Newcastle Falcons and Harlequins have ensured Rob Baxter's men remain firmly in the mix at the top end of the table, but with a clutch of clubs equally well placed around them, the need to secure vital league points has never been more apparent.

Standing in the way, however, of Devon's finest will be second-placed Bath, who themselves have suffered a blip in form with back-to-back defeats against Saracens and Northampton Saints in the past fortnight.

That said, tomorrow's visitors will arrive not only looking to get their own ship back on the straight and narrow, but looking to also preserve a proud top flight record against the Chiefs, who have yet to taste a league victory against their nearest and dearest in nine previous attempts.

With eight victories and a draw to their name, Bath have held the upper hand on all previous encounters – although the Chiefs have in more recent times bucked the trend somewhat with notable wins in the last two LV= Cup clashes.

Ahead of kick-off, head coach Baxter insists the statistic doesn't bother him – or his players – all that much and that the only focus this weekend will be on this latest match-up, which in itself promises to be an absolute cracker.

"I don’t think it plays on the players’ minds because we may not have beaten them in the league but, if you go through game-by-game against them, we have performed in a lot of those," he said. "The game we drew with them (12-12 in 2012), there was no way we should have drawn that game. It was just one of those things that we passed up three golden opportunities and then they scored late on.

"I think it is more that we have played very well against them and things haven’t quite come off, which is a credit to Bath because they have been able to see off the tight ones. We have got to keep working hard and see off a couple of the tight ones now because you have to strive to beat the teams that are at the top-end of the league."

Baxter believes, though, that the LV= Cup wins, which included a semi-final success at The Rec last season, have helped Exeter's mind-set and development.

"We're aware we've not beat them in the Premiership, but we have beaten them twice in the LV= Cup, one of which was a semi-final," he added. "Looking at our development over the years, that win was probably more important than some of the close losses we have experienced. Yes, it would be great to win at the weekend – not just because it's Bath – but because we are at home, our home form is good and, most importantly, it's vital league points we've collected against one of our rivals at the top end of the table."

Despite their recent stutter, Baxter insists Mike Ford’s men are still one of the top teams within the division and has warned that even though they are missing a clutch of players due to the current Six Nations, the visitors will still pose a formidable threat to his team.

"Whenever you play a top-four side, you go through them and see they have a good set-piece, a good attack, a good defence – they have a lot of different threats and you have to be prepared to face a lot of pressure right across the board," said Baxter. "To be fair, every time we have played them they have played quite a lot of good-tempo phase rugby and they are prepared to counter-attack from quite deep.

"They have got particularly dangerous ball-carriers too. Kyle Eastmond can be exceptional on his day, we all know Sam Burgess can be a big ball-carrier and is a big, strong guy, and Ollie Devoto is a very good rugby player too. All across their backline they have a threat. They also have had a strong set-piece this season and that is an important foundation of their game."

With the Chiefs themselves missing Jack Nowell because of his England call-up, Baxter has been forced to make a number of changes to his line-up from that which faced Harlequins a week ago.  With the Cornishman absent, Ian Whitten switches from the wing into the vacant midfield berth; Tom James is brought in on the wing; while up front there are starts for Carl Rimmer, Jack Yeandle and the fit-again Don Armand.

15 Phil Dollman
14 Matt Jess
13 Ian Whitten
12 Sam Hill
11 Tom James
10 Henry Slade
9 Will Chudley

1 Carl Rimmer
2 Jack Yeandle
3 Tomas Francis
4 Dean Mumm (capt)
5 Damian Welch
6 Dave Ewers
7 Don Armand
8 Thomas Waldrom

16 Luke Cowan-Dickie
17 Brett Sturgess
18 Alex Brown
19 Mitch Lees
20 Ben White
21 Dave Lewis
22 Gareth Steenson
23 Byron McGuigan

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