Exeter Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter says he has a group of players looking forward to returning to Aviva Premiership duty tomorrow at home to Newcastle Falcons (4:30pm).
After a month of action which has seen the Devon club advance to the knock-out stages of both the European Challenge and LV= Cups, it’s back to the bread and butter of the top flight for the Chiefs.
Baxter has watched on with quiet satisfaction at the way his team has rediscovered their winning formula – particularly after they lost four successive Premiership games either side of Christmas – and he is hopeful they can continue their renaissance against the visiting Northerners.
"We’ve got a group of players that are looking forward to getting back to Premiership action, particularly at home," said Baxter ahead of this weekend’s Sandy Park encounter. "I’m not going to say I am expecting anything, simply because that has been our issue a lot this season.
"Sometimes we have expected things to happen or we’ve expected performances, but what I am asking for this week is that we show a quality of performance and what we do on the pitch means that the result is in our hands and doesn’t come down to one or two slight things that will happen in games – because that is what has hurt us in our last few Premiership games."
Despite Exeter’s disappointing run of Premiership results, the fifth-placed Chiefs are still firmly in the mix at the top end of the table, lying just a point behind next best Wasps and three behind Saracens, who lie in third.
And Baxter is hopeful a strong run of results in this next block of games will drive the club further forward and keep them in the hunt for honours entering into the final throws of the season.
"We’ve made no secret that the Premiership is our focus," added Baxter. "We’ve said all season we want to get back into the top flight of Europe because it’s great to be there for a number of reasons. The main one, I suppose, is it’s the closest thing to playing international rugby without having players in that competition.
"It’s also important for us going forward as a club because we want our players to put themselves forward in what are the best shop windows – and for me that’s the Premiership and the Champions’ Cup.
"We have been there twice before, we enjoyed the experience and we learnt a great deal from those two years. But, as I said before, we’re an ambitious club and we want to be there on a regular basis. Right now we’re fifth in the table, which is great, but we know there is a long way to go and a lot of hard work to put in if that is all to come to fruition."
That hard work begins in earnest tomorrow against the Falcons, who having defeated the Chiefs at home back in October, are now targeting a first-ever victory at Sandy Park.
Baxter is aware of the threat posed by Dean Richards’ side, but rather than focus too much on the visitors, he has been keen to tweak certain parts of the Exeter game plan ahead of kick-off.
"Newcastle are a good side, they’re competitive and they are enjoying what they are doing," said Baxter. "The focus for us, however, is more on ourselves. We’ve got an important month coming up and it starts this Saturday.
"Being fifth is great and being one point off fourth is also great, but are we where we want to be?
"Probably after the last round of Premiership games we’d probably say ‘no’. The players are somewhat frustrated with that block because they know they let a couple of wins slip through their fingers, so we have to make sure we use that as an important motivation for this weekend."
Baxter continued: "What is encouraging is the last month has shown we have a real depth to our squad. The European performance were very pleasing, especially to get a home quarter-final, then we changed things up for the LV and we put in another two very good performances.
"Three wins out of four was pleasing, but I think as a group we learnt a lot from last week’s defeat at Saracens. What it showed was where we did the right things for a long period, that’s when we were in contention and even in the lead. It was once we stopped doing the right things, that’s when we struggled.
"If you give good sides an ‘in’ into the game, often they’ll punish you and that’s what happened last week. Saracens had a good ten minutes that ultimately decided the game."
With Jack Nowell released from England’s training camp earlier this week, Baxter has a wealth of riches to pick from ahead of kick-off. Not surprisingly, the majority of his frontline stars all return having sat out the past fortnight, whilst scrum-half Will Chudley also starts against his former club.
Tickets for the game are still available online via the club’s official website or can be purchased on the day of the game via the Ticket Office, which opens three hours prior to kick-off.
The England versus Italy encounter in the Six Nations will be shown on ALL screens around the stadium prior to the game.
15 Phil Dollman
14 Ian Whitten
13 Jack Nowell
12 Sam Hill
11 Matt Jess
10 Henry Slade
9 Will Chudley
1 Ben Moon
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Tomas Francis
4 Dean Mumm (capt)
5 Damian Welch
6 Dave Ewers
7 Ben White
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Jack Yeandle
17 Carl Rimmer
18 Alex Brown
19 Mitch Lees
20 Tom Johnson
21 Haydn Thomas
22 Gareth Steenson
23 Byron McGuigan