With just five rounds of the scheduled Aviva Premiership remaining, Rob Baxter has challenged his Exeter Chiefs side to go "flat out" in their attempts to secure a place in the end of season play-offs.
Having occupied a position in the top two for much of the season, it’s these final few weeks where the Devonians can really underline their credentials, starting with a big performance against Northampton Saints at Sandy Park this Sunday (3pm).
Buoyed by last weekend’s victory over the Newcastle Falcons, Baxter has tried to deflect any so-called pressure off his players by insisting they simply go out and enjoy the experience of taking the Chiefs into unchartered waters.
"We are not looking too far ahead," said Baxter. "At this stage of the season the important thing is you don’t look too far ahead, it’s more week by week. The time for planning and plotting and staging your way through games has gone now, it’s more about getting your head down and enjoying every experience.
"If you are second in the table and not enjoying every occasion, especially here at Sandy Park, that’s what you are getting wrong. I don’t want the players worrying about where they will end up at the end of the season, I want them going flat out against Northampton, because it’s going to be a great game.
"I want them to make the most of this 80 minutes because you’re time as a professional sportsman is limited, so I want them to maximise this time and this opportunity and look back on it with a bit of pride."
Certainly the Chiefs can be proud of a great deal this season, but it was at Franklin’s Gardens on New Year’s Day where they turned in one of their most disappointing displays to date. On that occasion, the Saints edged a somewhat drab encounter 8-3.
Although defeated, Baxter took heart from the fact his side did depart with a losing bonus point, but he is expecting a much improved performance when the two clubs meet again this weekend.
Baxter added: "First and foremost what you have to look at over the course of the season is how you are collecting points and I actually think a close lost at Northampton, having only conceded eight points, isn’t a terrible result especially following up a five-day turnaround in a tough fixture against Sale where we collected five points.
"On it’s own I don’t think the game up there stands for too much, but obviously we want to play well down here because we are at home. As I said, the fixture at Northampton does not hold much for either side because they will probably think they didn’t play great that day either, it’s more about focusing on ourselves.
"At this time of year it’s about getting the right players on the pitch and having them in the right condition and the right frame of mind and getting out their to win some games. Potentially, it’s an eight-point game given where both sides are in the table, but the important thing is we relish it and let it bring the best out of us and we focus on this 80 minutes. Let’s not worry about what people are talking about in the future, the rewards will come depending on how we play week by week and how we train day by day."
Keeping the focus of his team is an integral part of Baxter’s daily routine and as the season heads towards a dramatic climax, the experienced Exeter leader is well aware of what is on offer in the coming weeks and months.
"Let’s gets excited and enjoy these big occasions," he declared. "If we underperform because lads are nervous and worried about dropping out of top four, then obviously I am getting something wrong. However, if we are going out making mistakes because we are playing hard and trying to win the game, I can happily deal with that. That’s the important thing with our mentality, we turn up to play and win the game."
Certainly Exeter’s never-say-die attitude was underlined just a week ago against the lowly Falcons, who for an hour an least stayed in contention with the high-flying Chiefs. However, when push came to shove in the latter stages, it was the home side who pulled away, claiming late scores through Sam Hill and Elvis Taione to seal all five points.
"Newcastle were dogged and they stood in front of us," said Baxter. "However, we still scored four tries. We had two thirds possession and territory and the majority of the game was being played in one area of the pitch, namely Newcastle half.
"They scored two breakaway tries which kept the scoreboard tight, but what pleased me the most was our energy and our endeavour. We dominated huge parts of the game and in the end we came away with five points. Anyone who’s says five-point wins at this stage of the season aren’t the most valuable thing are getting things seriously wrong."
Despite collecting a maximum haul last time out, the Chiefs do make changes to their winning formula. In the pack, Ollie Atkins and Dave Ewers are recalled ahead of Lewis Stevenson and Julian Salvi; Dave Lewis is given the nod at scrum-half ahead of Will Chudley, while behind James Short’s inclusion means Ian Whitten reverts back into the centre alongside Henry Slade.
That in turn means Sam Hill drops to the bench where he will be joined for the first time by Australian international Lachie Turner, who is poised to make his debut for the club since arriving last month.
15 Phil Dollman
14 Olly Woodburn
13 Henry Slade
12 Ian Whitten
11 James Short
10 Gareth Steenson
9 Dave Lewis
1 Ben Moon
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Harry Williams
4 Ollie Atkins
5 Geoff Parling
6 Dave Ewers
7 Don Armand
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Elvis Taione
17 Alec Hepburn
18 Carl Rimmer
19 Lewis Stevenson
20 Julian Salvi
21 Will Chudley
22 Sam Hill
23 Lachie Turner