Rob Baxter may be wary of the threat Newcastle Falcons pose to his Exeter side, but insists its challenges such as tomorrow that his Chiefs outfit need to overcome to achieve their seasonal objectives.
With just six rounds of the scheduled Aviva Premiership season remaining, the jostling for key positions at both ends of the table is start to intensify and Baxter knows this is the time where teams need to start delivering.
Having not lost in the top flight since Bath won at Sandy Park in late October, Devon’s finest have positioned themselves nicely into the play-off places and have their fate firmly in their hand in their quest to try and go one step further than 12 months ago.
However, the play-off race is sure to go right to the wire and the Chiefs know they can ill afford any kind of slip-ups, particularly on home soil, with rivals all around them ready to pounce on any kind of mistake.
Thankfully, things have indeed gone to plan for the Chiefs in recent weeks, including them capitalising on defeats for top two Wasps and Saracens last weekend, as well as recording a maximum haul from their own trip to Worcester.
Baxter’s side triumphed 48-32 at Sixways a week ago, a result that drew them level on points with defending champions Saracens in second place.
The hard-fought victory was well earned, particularly given the opening quarter blast from the Warriors, but there were still elements of the game that Baxter is keen to eradicate moving forward, most notably in defence where the Chiefs leaked a try bonus point for a second consecutive week.
“Overall I was very pleased with the performance and the result last week,” said Baxter. “The truth is, however, we conceded a few points for the second week running and that is something we need to address and talk about.
“That said, sometimes when a team throws everything at you, like Worcester did early on, you have to give them a bit of credit for the positive things they brought to the game. They brought a huge amount of energy to the game which, in a way, kind of suited us. We wanted a game that had plenty of movement and ball in play time because we felt that would give us the best opportunity to win the game.
“As it was, that is what happened and as the game went on, so we created more and more opportunities. What I’d like from our guys was that even when they came at us hard, we didn’t crumble under scoreboard pressure, and instead we stuck to our game plan, imposed ourselves on them and started to score the tries we needed.”
The Chiefs leader will no doubt want more of the same from his troops tomorrow at Sandy Park, but is aware of the threat posed by the visiting Falcons, who have been much transformed this year compared to that of previous campaigns.
“We’ve paid Newcastle a lot of respect this week in terms of preparing for the game,” added Baxter. “Just looking at the videos of them we can see how well they are playing and the amount of points they are scoring, plus that they are playing with a real confidence and that they are enjoying their rugby.
“What is worrying from our perspective about them is that the pressure they are putting on themselves is all positive, especially about what they can achieve. Unlike previous year they are not having to look over their shoulders and worry what is behind them, instead it’s all looking forward and what they can potentially achieve.
“I have experienced that here at Exeter where you get part way through a season and you know everything is a positive for you and you look to move on. For both of us, we know we have to plenty to fight for. We’re fighting to stay in that key top four position, whilst Newcastle are fighting to get in that top six and the thought of getting into the top flight of Europe can be a huge incentive for any side.
“We know they will take some quelling at the weekend, but at the same time we’re at home, we have a proud home record here and we’re on a good run in the Premiership. We’ve talked a lot this week about the
intensity levels we will need to bring to the game and I’m confident we will bring them come Saturday.
“As a group we all know that if we’re looking to be involved in those big end of season games, it’s the work you do today and the results you achieve now that ultimately decide that. I know we’ve got it in us, we’re in a good frame of mind, we’re playing with style, and I’d like to think we have that little bit about us that is driving us to produce good results in tough circumstances.”
Team news for the Chiefs sees Baxter forced into change due to the recommencement of the Six Nations this weekend. Missing from a week ago will be centre pairing Henry Slade and Michele Campagnaro, along with tight-head prop Tomas Francis.
Fellow international Jack Nowell is also unavailable due to England commitments, while the Chiefs have been dealt an injury blow with the news that leading points-scorer Gareth Steenson also misses out after picking up a hamstring injury.
Steenson’s place in the starting XV is taken by youngster Joe Simmonds, who makes his first Premiership start, but he has plenty of experience outside of him with Ollie Devoto and Ian Whitten filling the centre positions.
Up front, Jack Yeandle returns to skipper the side at hooker having been forced to pull out at the last minute at Worcester due to illness, while the experienced Thomas Waldrom returns at No.8.
15 Phil Dollman
14 Olly Woodburn
13 Ian Whitten
12 Ollie Devoto
11 James Short
10 Joe Simmonds
9 Jack Maunder
1 Ben Moon
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Harry Williams
4 Mitch Lees
5 Geoff Parling
6 Dave Dennis
7 Don Armand
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Shaun Malton
17 Carl Rimmer
18 Moray Low
19 Sam Skinner
20 Kai Horstmann
21 Stuart Townsend
22 Will Hooley
23 Sam Hill