Rob Baxter welcomes Henry Slade back into the Exeter Chiefs mix for the first time since early December when he starts against Newcastle Falcons in the Aviva Premiership tomorrow (3pm).
The England international has not figured for the Devon club since breaking his leg and damaging ankle ligaments in Exeter’s impressive away win at Wasps. However, the 22-year-old playmaker has worked tirelessly to return to full fitness and Baxter has wasted little time in recalling the Plymouth-born back to his starting line-up.
Slade is one of seven changes the Chiefs have made to their side that went down 31-27 at Leicester Tigers last Sunday. He comes into a back division that includes Will Chudley returning at scrum-half and Olly Woodburn coming in on the right wing.
Up front, a new-look front-row is held together by skipper Jack Yeandle, who will have Ben Moon and Harry Williams either side of him; lock Lewis Stevenson makes his first start since re-joining the club last month and Thomas Waldrom is back at No.8 having been rested for last weekend’s trip to his former club.
With Slade back and Dave Ewers and Luke Cowan-Dickie having also returned to competitive action recently, Baxter said this week that the walking wounded list at Sandy Park is easing all the time and he hopes to have both Damian Welch and Mitch Lees back in the fray in the not too distant future.
Having such talent become available at what is fast-becoming a crucial stage of the season is a major boost for Baxter, but the Chiefs leader is solely focused on this weekend’s encounter and ensuring his side deliver after last week’s setback.
Indeed, Baxter insists nothing less than a victory will suffice against the lowly Falcons, who were dispatched 41-3 on their own turf in the corresponding fixture back in November.
“If we want to be a team that’s fighting for first and second place in the Premiership and a team is making the longest trip in the Premiership to you and are at the wrong end of the table, you have to expect to win,” said Baxter.
“If you are genuinely expected to be a first or second ranked side, these kind of become must-win games and that is no disrespect to Newcastle.
“Everyone is aware that Newcastle are winning games of rugby now, they are nobody’s mugs and it is going to be a tough game, but we know it is going to be tough and we have to face up to the fact it will be a tough game, and we have to come out on top of them and force the win, whatever happens.”
Although the Chiefs would love for a repeat of their earlier showing against the North East outfit, Baxter is aware Dean Richards’ side have improved significantly since that meeting, claiming a number of notable scalps along the way.
Add into the mix that they themselves are desperate for points – albeit at the other end of the table – and Baxter is right to be cautious.
“They [Newcastle] have a bit more confidence now and because they have picked up some wins and because of how things have gone with London Irish dropping off the bottom a bit, they can come here with not too much to lose and go after the game and that makes it dangerous.
“Again, we haven’t talked about that as a scenario because we want to make it about Exeter and I think the reason our home form is improving all the time is because we make it about ourselves. The lads turn up in the right frame of mind to put in a big performance.
“It is not a mystery why that happens, the players make it happen and that is what we have to do this weekend.”
That said, focus this week at Sandy Park has been around his own side and making sure they deliver as they look to keep themselves firmly in the play-off picture at the top end of the table.
“You hate to talk about things too far in advance, but the truth is that our home form has been good. I have said pretty much every week that our home form will be the foundations for everything we achieve,” continued Baxter.
“If we want to be first or second in the Premiership you have to expect to win your home games at this stage of the season.
“They are going to be huge fixtures for us and you would like to think out of a block of three home games, we will get some points and we are going to have to.
“When you look at the teams around us, the chasing pack is pretty tight, there is a lot of them and the points is narrowing up, but home wins will keep that gap where it needs to be.”
15 Phil Dollman
14 Olly Woodburn
13 Henry Slade
12 Sam Hill
11 Ian Whitten
10 Gareth Steenson
9 Will Chudley
1 Ben Moon
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Harry Williams
4 Lewis Stevenson
5 Geoff Parling
6 Don Armand
7 Julian Salvi
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Elvis Taione
17 Alec Hepburn
18 Carl Rimmer
19 Ollie Atkins
20 Dave Ewers
21 Dave Lewis
22 Will Hooley
23 Max Bodilly