It may be a long-standing sporting cliché, but Exeter Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter insists he and his team are literally taking things ‘one game at a time’ as the Aviva Premiership heads towards its final run-in.
With just five rounds of the scheduled season remaining, the Chiefs find themselves perched second in the standings and handily placed for a first-ever shot at getting into the end of season play-offs.
However, the Devon club are just one of a handful of clubs who harbour similar aspirations and with just five points separating Exeter in second and Wasps in sixth, it really is all to play for in the coming weeks.
Baxter insists it’s exciting times for everyone at Sandy Park, even though many perceive the Chiefs as having the toughest run-in of all the clubs between now and the end of the campaign.
First up is tomorrow’s encounter with Leicester Tigers at Welford Road, a venue the Chiefs visited only a fortnight ago when they won 30-22 in the LV= Cup semi-final.
Although the stakes on that day were high, this weekend’s match-up promises to raise the bar even higher as both sides head into the contest with many of their frontline stars back in harness.
"This week is a massive game," said Baxter. "We go to Leicester second in the Premiership and they are moving up the table too. They are a team that is used to coming good at this time of year and making the top four on a consistent basis.
"That said, we are involved in a series of one-off games between now and the end of the season and that’s a great position to be in. We have five rounds remaining and we’re in a position we’ve never been in before. I know speaking to the guys that this challenge will bring the best out of us, but at the same time we have to make the most of the day and the whole occasion and not think any further than 5pm on Saturday."
Having seen his side narrowly miss out on defending the LV= Cup last weekend, eventually going down to a last-gasp penalty from Saracens scrum-half Ben Spencer, Baxter says his squad are in fine shape heading into the final furlong.
"Obviously Leicester will have their international players back this week and they will have rested up a large group of players during the LV block," added Baxter. "But at the same time, we’ve been able to rest up a few of our guys who were involved in that last block of Premiership fixtures and also been able to give some much-needed game time to a large number of others in the LV.
"The last two weeks – from my perspective – have been very pleasing, but I thought the performance we put in at Welford Road was outstanding. Regardless of the team Leicester puts out, they don’t lose quarter-final or semi-finals at home, they just don’t.
"I think to see us go there and win the game, especially in the manner we did, was great. For me, it’s an indication that we are getting some great depth to our squad and we are starting to see a larger group of players displaying the qualities we really want to see in ourselves as a team.
"People are aware we like to play with ambition and we like to score tries, but there was also some real steel shown out there. At times we had to weather some real pressure moments and the forwards had to come through a storm at various times, but defensively we looked strong and we were prepared to fight for everything.
“It’s those qualities and those attributes you want to have running through your squad – and what the LV games have shown is that it’s there and as a group we have to look to maintain those levels and then look to improve them year on year."
Certainly the Chiefs showed during the last four-game block of Premiership fixtures that they have the credentials to challenge for honours this term – and Baxter wants to see more of the same during the coming weeks.
"Look at the successful sides at this level, it’s all about achieving a consistent set of results," admitted the Exeter head coach. "Yes, we’re still smarting a bit about the four losses either sides of Christmas, just because we do feel we let ourselves down and we underperformed in at least a couple of those games.
"That said, you have to put that to bed, put it behind you and use it as something that makes you a better team. I think we have done that now, but the proof of the pudding will ultimately come if we can show that we can be competitive in the league, whilst at the same time being involved in cup competitions.
"Right now there are a number of teams all fighting for the top four and the top six, but it’s so tight that when you say you are fighting for the top six in reality you are fighting for the top four. A win here or there or the odd bonus point, it can all change very quickly.
"And that’s why I’ve said to the group, I’m not overly concerned where we will be in five or six weeks, I want to look to see where we will be on Saturday afternoon and that’s all that matters."
As expected, Baxter has recalled a large nucleus of those players who have sat out the recent LV block of games. Indeed, just two of tomorrow’s starters – Carl Rimmer and Mitch Lees – were involved in last Sunday’s final.
The inclusion of Lees means he packs down in the second-row alongside Damian Welch and skipper Dean Mumm reverts to the back-row alongside Dave Ewers and former Tiger, Thomas Waldrom, who will be making his first return to his old stomping ground.
The back division remains unchanged from previous premiership outings and will be spearheaded by fly-half Henry Slade, who was named the Premiership Player of the Month recently.
15 Phil Dollman
14 Ian Whitten
13 Jack Nowell
12 Sam Hill
11 Matt Jess
10 Henry Slade
9 Will Chudley
1 Carl Rimmer
2 Jack Yeandle
3 Tomas Francis
4 Mitch Lees
5 Damian Welch
6 Dave Ewers
7 Dean Mumm (capt)
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Elvis Taione
17 Ben Moon
18 Alex Brown
19 Ben White
20 Kai Horstmann
21 Dave Lewis
22 Gareth Steenson
23 Tom James