Rob Baxter has warned his high-flying Exeter Chiefs side to prepare for a backlash of sorts from Northampton Saints ahead of tomorrow’s New Year’s Day clash at Franklin’s Gardens (3pm).
The East Midlanders crashed to their fourth Aviva Premiership defeat of the season last Saturday, going down 25-23 to previously winless London Irish at the Madejski Stadium.
At the same time, the Chiefs were notching up their sixth top flight win in seven starts, seeing off visiting Sale Sharks at Sandy Park as they maintained their pursuit at the top of defending champions Saracens.
Ahead of tomorrow’s match-up, however, Baxter is refusing to read too much into the fortunes of the Saints, who he knows always pose a formidable challenge on their own patch.
Baxter said: "Results would say they are having a bit of a down patch, but traditionally the teams they tend to end up around that top four – and Northampton are one of those – they tend to be able to deal with sticky patches when they come along.
"I think that’s a quality that we still aspire too, but Northampton are a side that are able to come through those patches strongly enough and still be challenging at the right end of the table come the end of the season.
"For me, if you look at their squad there are still a lot of individuals there when they have been a top four side and there are still a lot of individuals who are there when they won a Premiership. Recent results for them have been pretty tight and it’s not like they have been beaten by a large margin.
"I’d imagine they are kind of waiting for things to click and find that moment when their season starts to get up and running for them. What we have to try and do is not try and focus too much on hoping Northampton are poor on the day, but instead focus more on making sure we are very good ourselves.
"I say that because ultimately if you ever go to a Premiership club and hope they play badly, then already you have got your mental side of the game completely wrong. We have been talking and preparing this week to expect a backlash from them and we know we have to be right at the top of our game if we want to get anything from our visit."
Certainly the Chiefs showed last season that they can indeed win at the Gardens, their 24-18 victory last November was the first time Exeter had won at the venue and Baxter is hopeful his players can produce a repeat performance in their first fixture of 2016.
"We know we have to be good on Friday," added the Exeter coach. "It doesn’t matter where Northampton are in the league, if you want to win at Franklin’s Gardens you have be good. We can’t control how they train or how they turn up, but we can control how we train and the mental state in which we turn up."
Already this season, though, the Chiefs have demonstrated they can compete against the very best, both in England and in Europe, and Baxter is confident his team can maintain their lofty status within the Premiership.
"We’re seven games in, but there are still plenty of tough games to come," warned Baxter after being asked if his side had overcome the issues of narrow losses suffered last term.
"Right now we don’t know if we have eradicated those kind of results, but what we are seeing is a good level of performance at the moment. At the same time we’re also managing to deal with some relatively long-term injuries to some important players, which in turn is showing the strength of our squad.and the understanding of our game plan.
"We’re also probably getting more comfortable with playing in the Premiership and playing in higher pressure situations. It was something that was never going to happen overnight – and we still have some way to go – so the proof of the pudding isn’t where we are now, it’s where we will be at the end of the season.
"I think what we have to get used to dealing with is the pressure of being up at the top and everyone coming after us because we are above them. It’s a different challenge now, but it’s one we have to relish and enjoy."
Team news for the Chiefs ahead of their trip is that Baxter has made one change to his pack. England international Tom Johnson is promoted from the bench to replace Julian Salvi at open-side, while Ben White is brought onto the bench to provide back-row cover.
Behind, Michele Campagnaro – impressive off the bench against Sale – make his first-ever Premiership start in the centre alongside Ian Whitten, while Olly Woodburn is given the nod on the wing ahead of James Short, who drops down to the bench.
Otherwise, it’s ‘as you were’ for Baxter’s side, who including last season’s double over the Saints, have won the past three meetings between the two clubs.
15 Phil Dollman
14 Jack Nowell
13 Michele Campagnaro
12 Ian Whitten
11 Olly Woodburn
10 Gareth Steenson
9 Will Chudley
1 Ben Moon
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Tomas Francis
4 Mitch Lees
5 Geoff Parling
6 Don Armand
7 Tom Johnson
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Elvis Taione
17 Carl Rimmer
18 Moray Low
19 Ollie Atkins
20 Ben White
21 Dave Lewis
22 Will Hooley
23 James Short