Rob Baxter believes tomorrow’s visit of Leicester Tigers will provide the ‘acid test’ for his Exeter Chiefs side so far this season.
In what has been an encouraging start to the new Aviva Premiership season for Devon’s finest, this Round Four match-up promises to be their toughest assignment so far.
England’s most decorated club will arrive in the Westcountry not only boasting a Premiership record of eight wins in ten starts against the Chiefs, but they are also one of only two clubs, the other is Saracens, who have yet to taste defeat this term.
Baxter is well aware of the challenge this lies in store for his players, but they too have been in impressive form, bouncing back from their opening weekend loss at Bath by downing London Irish and Newcastle Falcons in successive weeks.
In both those games the Chiefs ran in for six tries in each game, conceding just once – against Irish – to propel them to third in the standings, just two points behind the Tigers.
But as Baxter was quick to stress this week to the media, the fact those two victories came against the division’s two bottom clubs, means he’s yet to see how his side will fair against one of the division’s proven contenders.
"Leicester will be an acid test of where we are at the moment. We think we are doing pretty well and are in good nick as a side and that is great," said Baxter.
"Yes, we’re played with our start to the season, but what you have to remember is we have beaten the two sides who are propping up the table currently.
"This will be much more of a test against a side unbeaten in the Premiership and getting more and more confident every week. They have played Harlequins and Wasps – sides you could say are tougher than what we have had – so that is why it’ll be a bigger test."
Indeed, the Chiefs have impressed many in the past fortnight, not only with their free-flowing attack, but also their miserly defence which again fared well in the North East last time out.
Baxter continued: "We’ll know much more about where we stand after the weekend, but we’ve dealt well with what we’ve had to deal with.
"We played London Irish here and put in a very good performance and then we went to Newcastle and put in a very good performance there. We also put in a pretty good performance away to Bath without quite seeing it over the line.
"Performance-wise, we’re happy with large parts of what we’ve produced so far. However, the game against Leicester will give us some comparables."
With both the Chiefs and Tigers in action last Sunday, it’s been a quick turnaround for both clubs as they prepare for this latest top-of-the-table clash.
Baxter admits his side have done plenty of homework on their rivals, including picking the brains of former Tigers, Geoff Parling, Julian Salvi and Thomas Waldrom, but in truth it’s his own side’s display that is uppermost in his mind.
"We have to concentrate on ourselves and not get distracted that it’s Leicester Tigers in town," added Baxter.
"What we have to do is concentrate on ourselves, especially as it has been a short turnaround week.
"In a way that can sometimes help refocus your mind because you know you have less on-field time to prepare. Therefore you have to maximise that by getting your little bit and pieces right as quickly as you can.
"Yes, we’ve looked at them in detail this week and we’ve talked to the guys that have played for them in the past. It would be a little bit naive not to ask for their opinion. They’ve told us a few things, but at the same time there has been a fair bit of changes to their coaching set-up, so there will be elements that are relevant, but a lot of it has changed.
"As I said, we’re not going to brainwash ourselves into thinking something is coming. Instead, we’ll deal with what is coming in front of our faces and there will be lots of challenges there on Saturday for us to deal with.
"Leicester, we know, will prepare very well – they always do – and they’ll bring something new that they feel will hurt us. They’ll also have plans to try and control what we do, but I want us to be confident the plays we carry out can be forced on them and that we’re successful in what we do, both in attack and in defence."
Certainly Exeter’s cause will be buoyed by the return of England international Jack Nowell to their back division. The Cornishman was forced to sit out last week’s game against the Falcons, but he returns in a starting XV that shows two changes.
He takes over on the right wing from Matt Jess, who drops to the bench, whilst the other change sees Ian Whitten come into the centre alongside Henry Slade with Sam Hill also reverting down to the replacements.
Up front, Exeter’s pack of forwards remain unchanged and include a powerful back-row trio of Dave Ewers, Salvi and Don Armand, who picked up the man of the match award at Newcastle a week ago.
Tickets for tomorrow’s game are still available through the Trading Post, which is open until 4pm today or online via the club’s official website.
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 Julian Salvi
8 Don Armand
16 Jack Yeandle
17 Alec Hepburn
18 Moray Low
19 Ollie Atkins
20 Thomas Waldrom
21 Dave Lewis
22 Sam Hill
23 Matt Jess