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Chiefs side to face Harlequins

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Rob Baxter acknowledges the pressure is on his Exeter Chiefs side, but insists it’s the same every week in the Aviva Premiership.

After back-to-back losses against Wasps and Saracens, Baxter’s men find themselves rooted to the foot of the table with just a solitary point to their name.

Tomorrow, however, they have the chance to get their season finally up and running when they welcome Harlequins to Sandy Park (3pm).

Head coach Baxter knows the Londoners will pose another creditable threat to his team, but he wants his troops to rise in battle and replicate the kind of performances of last term when they finished as runners-up in the top flight.

“I do think there is a bit of pressure on us but I think the pressure is that it’s an important game of Premiership rugby,” said Baxter. “I think that’s what we need to focus on – let’s just focus on this one weekend, not what’s happened before or what might happen in the future, but actually, this is a really important fixture, so let’s get out there and really enjoy playing in a Premiership rugby game at home at Sandy Park.

“That’s really going to be my message to the team – to stop thinking about everything else and worry about this one game and us showing our best qualities this weekend. That’s the message that was very good for us last season, as that’s how we approached the season – we just enjoyed each challenge as it came and threw ourselves into it and that’s what I want to do this weekend.

“It’s a challenge and it’s a slightly different challenge as we haven’t won yet in the Premiership but that should make it a bit more exciting and bring a bit more out of us and show a bit more character.”

The Chiefs leader feels this start to the season is the biggest test of character to his side’s Premiership credentials, and he is keen for his players to relish being in the situation they find themselves in, rather than feel sorry for themselves over the fact it has not gone as well as they would have hoped so far this campaign.

“I’ve said in the past that I’ve always thought the biggest test we’d have as a club is if we lost a few fixtures early in the season,” he said. “I’ve seen big clubs deal with it and I remember it wasn’t that long ago that we saw Leicester lose five out of six at the start of the season and I think they ended up winning the Premiership that year.

“I think, for me, that’s the real test of character and quality in a side, so, at this stage, I’m looking at it thinking it’s a test of character.

“I’m looking at the players who’ll really enjoy playing on Saturday and really enjoy going out there and throwing themselves around, expressing themselves and getting on with things.

“I’m not really interested in the players who’ll be feeling sorry for themselves after two losses but, having said that, I have said to the players that they’ve shown a lot of good qualities over the last two weeks.”

Although undone in the opening two games, Baxter has resisted the opportunity to make sweeping changes in personnel. Tomorrow, he tweaks the line-up slightly with Mitch Lees coming into the pack for Damian Welch, Gareth Steenson will get his first start of the season at fly-half, Henry Slade shunts to inside centre at the expense of Sam Hill, while Olly Woodburn returns on the wing with Lachie Turner moving to full-back in place of the injured Phil Dollman.

Harlequins, meanwhile, are expected to be without key duo Nick Evans and Jamie Roberts because of injury, but England star Mike Brown is poised to return after recovering from septicaemia. His return, coupled with the other notable threats in the visiting squad, mean Baxter is duly wary of John Kingston’s visitors.

Baxter said: “I’ve been reading in the press that they’re a little frustrated with their start to the season but everyone who hasn’t won a couple of games will be a little frustrated at this stage of the season.

“We’ve had some good performances against them in the past and I don’t think anyone’s taking anything for granted, as they’ve got some fantastic players and we’re going to have to work extremely hard to get the result we want.”

He added: “That’s what the Premiership should be about. It should be a tough game and a bit of a pressure game – that’s what the Premiership is about, that’s why we’re here. I don’t want people to think we’ve been in the Premiership a few years now, so it’s a matter of fact, as it’s not.”

15 Lachie Turner
14 Olly Woodburn
13 Ollie Devoto
12 Henry Slade
11 Ian Whitten
10 Gareth Steenson (capt)
9 Will Chudley

1 Ben Moon
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Greg Holmes
4 Mitch Lees
5 Geoff Parling
6 Don Armand
7 Julian Salvi
8 Thomas Waldrom

16 Jack Yeandle
17 Alec Hepburn
18 Tomas Francis
19 Damian Welch
20 Dave Dennis
21 Dave Lewis
22 Sam Hill
23 James Short

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