Having already advanced to the latter stages of European competition, Exeter Chiefs know victory in Wales this weekend will see them edge ever closer to the last four of this season’s LV= Cup.
Impressive home victories over Gloucester and Bath have positioned Rob Baxter’s side top of their pool at the halfway stage – and another success on Sunday against Newport-Gwent Dragons at Rodney Parade (2:30pm) will have the Devon club all but there in terms of qualification.
However, the Chiefs are well aware any trip into the Principality is far from easy and that a semi-final berth is far from guaranteed at this stage.
The defending champions, though, travel in bullish mood having notched up back-to-back European Challenge Cup wins against Connacht and Bayonne in the past fortnight.
Although the majority of those players who ensured Exeter’s quarter-final spot will be rested this weekend, it is still a powerful array of talent that the Devonians will parade against the Welsh region.
Former Dragons Ceri Sweeney and Adam Hughes both start the contest in a back division which also contains the likes of Byron McGuigan, Tom James, Fetu’u Vainikolo, Ian Whitten and the long-serving Haydn Thomas.
Up front, the likes of Brett Sturgess, Elvis Taione and Tom Johnson provide further big-game experience, whilst there is the opportunity for a number of the club’s highly-rated youngsters to showcase their worth from the off.
Baxter said: “It’s going to be great to see a group of players who have not had as much game time as they would like play against Newport and it will be great to see guys like Fetu’u Vainikolo, Tom James, Ceri Sweeney and Byron McGuigan running around and getting an opportunity to get the ball in their hands and play.
“At the same time it will also be great to see some of the younger guys we think are improving and coming through – guys like Sam Simmonds, Max Bodilly and Stu Townsend – and this is a great competition for them.
“A lot of what you would call our front-line players now have come through playing some very important LV= Cup games for us and it’s been a real testing ground for them.
“If you look at Henry Slade, Jack Nowell, Sam Hill – I think there’s a picture of them all playing against London Welsh a couple of years ago in the LV= Cup. There were five or six of them who played that day and they’re coming through now.
“It’s going to be an important competition to get us, as a squad, up and running and playing very well for the return to the Premiership.”
And with the Chiefs desperate to hold onto the LV crown they won against Northampton Saints last March, Baxter says it’s great that his squad can head into Sunday’s match knowing that a win – coupled with results elsewhere – can ensure they advance.
For that to happen, the Chiefs not only have to triumph but Harlequins have to fail to beat Bath at home tomorrow. However, regardless of this weekend’s results, Exeter can still reach the last four in the final round of fixtures when they face Saracens away the following Sunday.
“It’s nice to have your future in competitions in your own hands, and that’s where things are at the moment,” added Baxter. “First and foremost it’s about getting a group of players up and running and enjoying what they’re doing, having a good training week and looking forward to a new challenge again.”
15 Byron McGuigan
14 Fetu’u Vainikolo
13 Ian Whitten
12 Adam Hughes
11 Tom James
10 Ceri Sweeney (capt)
9 Haydn Thomas
1 Brett Sturgess
2 Elvis Taione
3 Tomas Francis
4 Jerry Sexton
5 Will Carrick-Smith
6 Tom Johnson
7 Sam Simmonds
8 Sam Skinner
16 Greg Bateman
17 Jake Woolmore
18 Jack Stanley
19 Ed Holmes
20 Joel Conlon
21 Stuart Townsend
22 Laurence May
23 Max Bodilly