They say home is where the heart is and for Exeter Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter, he’s well aware that if his side are to be genuine contenders for a play-off spot in this season’s Aviva Premiership, then finding the winning formula at Sandy Park will be key.
Last term only two sides – Leicester Tigers and Gloucester – emerged victorious from the Devon venue as the Chiefs posted their best-ever top flight finish.
Sadly, such form was not enough to ensure Baxter’s men of a top four placing, points difference denying them on the final day, but it did show the Chiefs were more than a match for anyone on their own turf.
Tomorrow, they kick-off their home campaign for the 2015/16 season against London Irish side (6pm) and Baxter is keen that his squad start with a bang.
“We are a good team at home, we have built the foundations over the seasons with the qualities of our home performances and we have to do that again,” said Baxter.
The Chiefs, however, come into the game on the back of a narrow 19-17 loss at Bath a week ago and the need to returning to winning ways has not been lost on the Exeter coach, who admitted he was left frustrated by missed opportunities at The Rec.
“To create as many opportunities as we did without forcing any home and then to lose by two points, you have to be frustrated by that, but you have to be frustrated in the right way and see the game for what it was,” added Baxter.
“The truth is that most of what we did was good because if it wasn’t good, we wouldn’t have been anywhere near Bath. Those facts add up and what we do have to do is when we get that close, be tougher and more clinical.
“We have only focused on two or three areas since the Bath game – one around the scrum and one around our driving play and one around some decision-making on certain areas of the pitch.
“They will be important elements this week and it was good to come out of that Bath game knowing we only had two or three things to focus on.”
Even at the death last week the Chiefs were in sight of victory, but Henry Slade’s last-gasp drop-goal attempt failed to hit the mark and it was the hosts who were left celebrating in the Roman City.
Against the Exiles tomorrow, Slade is one of three changes the Chiefs have made to their starting XV. He returns in the centre alongside Ian Whitten, whilst England colleague Jack Nowell is also back and is given a role on the wing at the expense of Matt Jess.
Up front, Tomas Francis – fresh from World Cup duty with Wales – is drafted straight back into the fold at tight-head, whilst there is a first inclusion on the bench for England and British Lions lock, Geoff Parling, who joined the Chiefs this summer from Leicester Tigers.
Such talent and experience coming back into the fray shows the options now available to Baxter, who said little needed to be tweaked in regards to the game plan, despite last weekend’s setback against local rivals Bath.
“If you are aiming to be one of the top sides in the Premiership, then when you look, historically, there has been some real ding-dong battles home and away amongst those top teams in the Premiership,” continued Baxter. “Often, games will go one way or the other by one score.
“It certainly shouldn’t define your season, it really shouldn’t, but that’s the way we have to look at it. To be within one score of Bath away from home was our best performance there by far, we have picked up the losing bonus point, so we are not disappointed with our overall performance, just one or two areas.”
But like the Chiefs, tomorrow’s visitors will be equally determined to get their own season up and running having come unstuck at home to Leicester Tigers last Sunday.
Under the guidance of new head coach Tom Coventry, the Exiles showed back in January that they have the personnel in place to shock the Chiefs. On that occasion Shane Geraghty’s last-gasp drop-goal ensured them of a 28-26 success at the Madejski Stadium
Like the Chiefs, they will be boosted by the return of key back-row forward Blair Cowan following his exertions with Scotland, whilst a splattering of new recruits means they will offer new challenges to the Westcountry outfit.
“The players are aware and we probably felt quite frustrated with the way we lost the game up at London Irish, but I thought fair play to them, I couldn’t complain with the result on the day,” recalled Baxter, who will also include former Exiles player James Short on the left wing and skipper Gareth Steenson at fly-half on his 150th league appearance for the club.
15 Phil Dollman
14 Jack Nowell
13 Henry Slade
12 Ian Whitten
11 James Short
10 Gareth Steenson (capt)
9 Will Chudley
1 Ben Moon
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Tomas Francis
4 Mitch Lees
5 Damian Welch
6 Dave Ewers
7 Don Armand
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Jack Yeandle
17 Alec Hepburn
18 Moray Low
19 Geoff Parling
20 Julian Salvi
21 Dave Lewis
22 Sam Hill
23 Olly Woodburn