Rob Baxter says it’s vital his Exeter Chiefs side look to build on the momentum they have generated in recent weeks when they travel to Northampton Saints in Round Five of the Aviva Premiership tomorrow night (7:45pm).
Having recovered from opening losses to Wasps and Saracens, the mood at Sandy Park has changed considerably in the past fortnight after the Chiefs collected maximum hauls from their last two outings against Harlequins and Bristol.
Those victories have helped to lift the Devonians into fifth spot, much to the satisfaction of Baxter who is hopeful his players can continue their fine form with another big display against the Saints at Franklin’s Gardens.
“The boys are looking in a good place, both physically and mentally, and things look a lot more comfortable when you look at our league position,” explained head coach Baxter. “Collecting ten points in ten days feels good, but now we have add to that momentum we’ve generated.”
Traditionally a trip to the Gardens is one of the toughest on the league calendar, but the Chiefs have triumphed there in the past and Baxter is hopeful of another positive result from his troops ahead of their latest Premiership battle.
“We know it’s a tough fixture away from home against a top four side,” said Baxter. “That said, I think we’re all really looking forward to it. The mood of the guys and the way they’ve trained this week has been very positive and it’s one of those fixtures that gives you a real opportunity to testing yourself as not only a player, but also as a team as well.
“Yes, we’re aware Northampton will be hurting after the Wasps game last week, but we have to take advantage of that. It means we have to go up there and play well, start well and keep some real pressure on them.
“In a lot of ways that’s almost the most important thing to take into the game – making sure you start well and put pressure on the opposition.
“If you look at the last time we played against what you’d describe as a top side, which was Saracens down here a few weeks ago, that is exactly what we didn’t do in the first 10, 15 minutes. We allowed them to dominate, get 12-0 up, and in turn get comfortable about the way they wanted to play.
“We’ve talked about that this week, so our first battle to win on Friday is to start well.”
Standing in the way of the Chiefs, however, will be a Saints side determined to get their own campaign up and running. With three defeats in four games – two of them on home soil – the pressure is very much on Jim Mallinder’s side ahead of this latest match-up.
That said, Baxter has seen plenty in their displays to warn his own side about, adding: “Looking at the Wasps game last week, I think Northampton will feel they bombed a few chances. They got close to the try-line a few times and lost the ball, plus they had a few gilt-edged chances which they didn’t quite see off.
“Add in the fact that Wasps scored a length of the field try and it all adds up. In close games those little things can really hurt you. I’ve been in the same situation in the past where you have done most things right, yet not come away with the score.
“As I said, watching Northampton they are actually playing some good rugby and they probably feel a little bit like we did after two rounds, where we felt things were going well and that if we could nail down a few things, then those things can change pretty quickly. For us Friday will be another interesting challenge, but it’s one we should be excited about.”
With a spot in the top four up for grabs should the Chiefs triumph, Baxter is looking for his side – which shows five changes to the starting line-up – to cement themselves amongst the division’s frontrunners.
“Away wins and away points are always very important,” said Baxter. “And now we have put together back-to-back victories, it’s helped to lift us up the table. The challenge, however, is to really nail that third win because that is the one that really moves you as a side.
“At this level it’s hard to put together two wins, let along three of four, but the teams that can do that are the teams that traditionally end up in the top six and the top four – and that’s what we have to fight hard to achieve.”
Team news for the Chiefs sees Baxter make four changes to the pack which started at Bristol a week ago. In the front-row, Ben Moon and Jack Yeandle start in place of Alec Hepburn and Luke Cowan-Dickie. Geoff Parling is given the nod over Damian Welch at lock, while Kai Horstmann gets his first start of the season with Julian Salvi the man to miss out.
In the back division, the sole change sees England international Ollie Devoto start in the midfield alongside Henry Slade with Sam Hill dropping to the bench, which includes for the first time this season Ben White and Jack Nowell.
15 Lachie Turner
14 Olly Woodburn
13 Ollie Devoto
12 Henry Slade
11 Ian Whitten
10 Gareth Steenson
9 Will Chudley
1 Ben Moon
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Greg Holmes
4 Mitch Lees
5 Geoff Parling
6 Dave Dennis
7 Kai Horstmann
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Luke Cowan-Dickie
17 Alec Hepburn
18 Harry Williams
19 Damian Welch
20 Ben White
21 Dave Lewis
22 Sam Hill
23 Jack Nowell