Exeter Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter believes his side’s return to Aviva Premiership action this week will reveal plenty about how they could ultimately fare this season.
After four weeks of European and LV= Cup action, it’s back to the bread and butter of the top flight for the Chiefs, who tomorrow night face defending champions Northampton Saints at Franklin’s Gardens (7.45pm).
With the Saints currently occupying top spot and the Chiefs two rungs down the ladder, some five points adrift, this latest match-up promises to be the ultimate test for Baxter’s men on their league return.
It is, however, a game the Chiefs leader insists he and his players are relishing – particularly as Devon’s finest are keen to maintain their position amongst the division’s frontrunners.
Northampton offer the initial threat in this next block of Premiership fixtures, before Wasps and Saracens offer back-to-back threats in the upcoming two games at Sandy Park.
Baxter knows it’s a crucial stage within the season for his Chiefs and says these next few weeks will give him a clear insight into just how his side fare amongst their divisional rivals.
"This is the block of games that will show a lot about us as a team, our strength in depth and where we generally stand as we head towards Christmas," said Baxter. "We’ve played well but we also think we’ve lost a couple of Premiership games [Leicester and Newcastle] that were there for the winning.
"Obviously it’s a big game for ourselves and Northampton, given the positions we are both in the table. As I said, we’re excited how the season is going for us, but we’re also aware that there are a lot of big challenges that lie ahead.
"Looking at things right now, there is no bigger challenge than going to Northampton, the current champions, and looking to get a result against them. For us, it’s a nice test and kind of what we need right now."
Baxter continued: "Six league games in, it’s great and we’ve given ourselves a really good foundation, but the challenge for all of us now is to really push on.
"I’m quite excited by it, I think we’re ready to push on, and I’m really looking forward to Friday night. It’s a great place to play rugby, against what is a very good team, and it should be something we’re all very excited about.
"I’ve been banging on this season about making sure we see the Premiership as an exciting thing for us. This is an exciting challenge for us, going away to Northampton is what we got into the Premiership for, and that’s the way I want the players to see it."
And whilst the Chiefs will head to the East Midlands with virtually a full-strength side to select from, the Saints on the other hand will be minus a number of their top stars due to the current Autumn internationals.
Baxter, though, doesn’t see that as too much of an advantage to his side, stressing that this was an annual problem for the Saints.
"Northampton will be used to having their international players away, you don’t win Premierships if you can’t get by without having internationals away," warned Baxter. "It happened to them last year, yet they still came out on top.
"They know perfectly how to deal with this scenario, so we’ve not worried too much about who is in and who is out for them. Instead, we have focused on ourselves and how we want to attack the game."
And having utilised his squad to the full over the past month, including fielding a powerful line-up for last weekend’s LV= Cup win over Bath, Baxter feels his players are finely tuned for their league return.
"People have asked if playing guys over the past month was a gamble, but we certainly didn’t think so," said Baxter. "You can’t go a month without picking frontline players. We rested most of them in Bayonne, brought them back for Connacht, rested a few for the Gloucester LV game, then had most of them back last week against Bath,
"It’s been about evening up the game time, yet still keeping the players sharp. I think we’ve got the balance right because we’ve managed to put out competitive sides and we’ve won three out of the four games. But, as we’ve always said, the Premiership is our main focus and it’s been about building again for this return this weekend."
Team news for the Chiefs from that which saw off rivals Bath a week ago sees Carl Rimmer and Ben White come into the pack for Ben Moon and Dave Ewers, whilst behind the sole change sees Phil Dollman return at full-back in place of Byron McGuigan.
15 Phil Dollman
14 Jack Nowell
13 Henry Slade
12 Sam Hill
11 Matt Jess
10 Gareth Steenson
9 Will Chudley
1 Carl Rimmer
2 Jack Yeandle
3 Tomas Francis
4 Dean Mumm (capt)
5 Damian Welch
6 Ben White
7 Don Armand
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Luke Cowan-Dickie
17 Ben Moon
18 Moray Low
19 Ryan Caldwell
20 Kai Horstmann
21 Haydn Thomas
22 Ian Whitten
23 Byron McGuigan