Exeter Chiefs back coach Ali Hepher says his side will have to be on top form if they are to emerge triumphant from Sunday’s Aviva Premiership trip to Leicester Tigers (3pm).
The second-placed Chiefs made it back-to-back victories in the league a week ago when they defeated local rivals Bath 26-17 at Sandy Park, but their credentials are sure to be tested to the max by the Tigers, who themselves remain firmly in the play-off picture having thumped London Irish last time out.
Nine points separate the two sides going into this weekend’s tussle at Welford Road and Hepher feels if the Chiefs can knock over Richard Cockerill’s side for a second time this term, it will ensure they keep themselves firmly at arms length from an ever-growing chasing pack.
"It’s certainly up there as one of the toughest fixtures of the season, but it’s also one of the most exciting," said Hepher. "It’s where you judge yourself and it’s obviously a great place to go and play in front of some very knowledgable fans. As always it will be a great experience for the guys, but it’s also a great challenge for us and just what we want at this time.
"We have worked hard over the last few weeks to get the results we have and we’ve improved in our training and then taken that into the games. For large periods against Bath we controlled the game, but we did have our moments where we put ourselves under pressure. That said, we showed strong character to come thought the sticky patches either side of half time and to then be really in control of the game again."
Fly-half Gareth Steenson did much of the damage for the Chiefs against Bath, landing 16 points on the day to take him through 1,000 Premiership points for the club, whilst Ian Whitten and Kai Horstmann added a try apiece to complete Exeter’s 10th league win of the season.
All three will again figure in an Exeter squad which shows a number of changes in personnel to that which ran out in the all-Westcountry affair. International props Moray Low and Tomas Francis both return to the fray in an all-changed front-row that also includes skipper Jack Yeandle.
Behind them, former Leicester favourite Julian Salvi returns in the back-row at the expense of another ex-Tiger, Thomas Waldrom, who has been given the weekend off by head coach Rob Baxter.
The only other change to the starting XV comes on the wing where the experienced Matt Jess is given the nod over Olly Woodburn in a back three, which will also include full-back Phil Dollman, who will be making his 100th Premiership appearance.
Hepher was quick to praise the contribution of the Welshman, who has been an integral part of the Chiefs make-up since he was signed from the Newport Gwent Dragons in 2008.
"I think it’s testament to Phil that he’s achieved such a feat," said the Chiefs coach. "He’s a very under-rated player, he holds our back line together well, feeds in info all the time and he’s one of the smartest we have in the squad. He also gives us plenty in attack and on the ball and over the years he’s been very consistent.
"I know Rob counts him as one of his best signings and, like I said, he’s done a fantastic job for us."
As for the challenge, though, Hepher expects Sunday’s showdown to be a real battle, adding: "Every side at this level is tough, especially away from hime. Leicester have quality players, they’ve probably not got as many international call-ups as perhaps in the past and they are in good form.
"We know we have be right on top of our game if we’re to get anything out of it, but we’ve trained well this week and the enthusiasm amongst the lads to get out there, play and attack the game is all there. What we have to do is just push what we’ve worked on this week through and into the game itself."
Certainly the Chiefs have shown in recent weeks that they have varying game plans in their locker, all of which are capable of recording big performances and, ultimately, the end results.
"You have to be able to win games in different ways, at different times and in different situations," continued Hepher. "Sometimes you just have to grind out a win and at others times everything clicks and you look a million dollars. In our case, we’re prepared to do either. We just want to win games and pick up points.
"Sometimes it doesn’t matter how you play, you just have to be effective in what you do. By and large we’ve done that pretty well this season, we’ve picked up ten wins for the season, so we’re in good shape."
15 Phil Dollman
14 Matt Jess
13 Ian Whitten
12 Sam Hill
11 James Short
10 Gareth Steenson
9 Dave Lewis
1 Moray Low
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Tomas Francis
4 Ollie Atkins
5 Geoff Parling
6 Dave Ewers
7 Julian Salvi
8 Don Armand
16 Elvis Taione
17 Alec Hepburn
18 Harry Williams
19 Lewis Stevenson
20 Kai Horstmann
21 Will Chudley
22 Will Hooley
23 Max Bodilly