Exeter Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter may have seen seeds of encouragement during his side’s European Champions Cup loss in Belfast last week, but he insists there is still plenty of room for growth moving forward this season.
After back-to-back European losses against ASM Clermont Auvergne and Ulster, Baxter’s side return to domestic matters this Sunday with a mouth-watering showdown against local rivals Bath at a packed out Sandy Park (3pm).
With just two wins on the board so far this season, the Chiefs – who still sit fifth in the current standings – know they need to rediscover some of the key elements of their play, which last season took them all the way to the Premiership final at Twickenham.
Although not a million miles away from achieving that, those within the Devon club have made no secret that more intensity and a sharper edge is needed in performances, continuing against this weekend against Todd Blackadder’s in-form visitors.
Third-placed Bath will head down the M5 having lost just once under their new Kiwi coach and looking to inflict further woe on the Chiefs.
Baxter knows from past experience that games between the two clubs tend to serve up tight encounters and he’s calling on his troops to stand up and be ready for the battle that lies ahead.
“I think we’re seeing the team improve bit by bit,” said Baxter. “As a team I want us to take lots of little steps over the course of this season and not talk about all of a sudden there needs to be some kind of miracle because sport is not like that. What we have to be prepared to do is work very hard and take lots of little steps, not just as individuals, but as a team.”
After a disappointing display on their last outing at Sandy Park against Clermont, the Chiefs were much improved in last week’s clash with Ulster, where they went down 19-18 right at the death.
Paddy Jackson’s late drop-goal secured victory for the Irishmen, even though Gareth Steenson – back at his former club – was just inches away from capping a memorable homecoming with a drop-goal chance of his own in the final minute.
Baxter acknowledged post-match and again this week that Exeter’s showing was more like what he craves, adding: “If that kick goes over at the end, the result would get viewed in a lot of ways as a huge European win, not just for Exeter, but for any side.
“To go there against an Ulster side under pressure, an evening game and a sell-out crowd, that would have been a huge win. I’m not going to say it was a perfect game of rugby, because it wasn’t, but there wasn’t a person in that stadium who was leaving early.
“That was an intense game of Champions Cup rugby, which it went right to the wire. For me, that shows how close we are. Obviously you always want accuracy, but the key foundations of us being a bit angry and a bit intense were there whereas they weren’t the week before.
“Before the game we talked about it keeping it simple and then deal with the other bits on top. That bit stood up for large parts and I could not have asked for anymore from the players. If you looked at the guys at the end, they had given everything. They had gone flat out and lost a game of rugby and yes it hurts when it’s like that. It doesn’t hurt as much when you don’t lay everything on the line and that was where we were after the Clermont game.”
Baxter continued: “We faced up to some real home truths that the level against Clermont, mentally and physically, simply wasn’t good enough,” he continued.
“The players stepped up, knew that was the case and prepared in a way that made sure it wasn’t the case again.
“I said to the guys though that it was just a step on the ladder towards where we want to go and it will mean very little if we don’t keep stepping forward.
“We discussed it at a meeting on Tuesday and we didn’t suddenly think we were okay simply because of a good performance against Ulster.
“We will continue to talk about it openly and honestly. There are still lots of steps forward for us to take to win more games, but we have approached it by saying that this the minimum physical commitment needed and we just have to add a little bit of quality to it. We can’t let that intensity drop away as we look to improve as a rugby side.”
Standing in the way of the Chiefs on Sunday, however, will be a much improved Bath side to that of last season where they struggled to find the form of the season previous.
“Bath have a lot of resilience and that is a great quality to have – probably the quality we have lacked this season, if we are honest with ourselves. You can see they look very confident in themselves and that is often the best indicator of a team. They are happy to play effective rugby and don’t feel they have to play end-to-end stuff.”
Team news for the Chiefs sees Baxter make only one enforced change to his starting XV. A bicep injury to flanker Julian Salvi sustained against Ulster means he is set for a spell on the sidelines, so Australian international Dave Dennis is promoted from the bench to start in the back-row alongside Kai Horstmann and Thomas Waldrom.
On the bench, the void left by Dennis is filled by compatriot Ben White, otherwise the remainder of the squad remains unchanged.
15 Lachlan Turner
14 Olly Woodburn
13 Ian Whitten
12 Henry Slade
11 James Short
10 Gareth Steenson (capt)
9 Dave Lewis
1 Moray Low
2 Jack Yeandle
3 Harry Williams
4 Mitch Lees
5 Geoff Parling
6 Dave Dennis
7 Kai Horstmann
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Elvis Taione
17 Carl Rimmer
18 Tomas Francis
19 Jonny Hill
20 Ben White
21 Jack Maunder
22 Sam Hill
23 Ollie Devoto