Rob Baxter says it’s imperative his Exeter Chiefs side keep their “foot on the pedal” after securing back-to-back victories in the Aviva Premiership in the past fortnight.
Tomorrow, Baxter will be looking for his team to maintain that winning formula when they travel to Sale Sharks at the AJ Bell Stadium (7:45pm).
It is – according to the Exeter head coach – one of the most testing assignments on the top-flight calendar and he’s warned his players to brace themselves for a real battle up in the North West.
“I’ve said for the last few weeks that we’re starting to get up to the speed and intensity we need to be at to be competitive in the Premiership,” said Baxter. “And I think a lot of what we did at the weekend against Worcester and the week before at Newcastle have highlighted that.
“Mentally and physically we’ve looked sharp and strong. The sharpness thing in particular has been the most pleasing thing and it’s an indicator that we are moving in the right direction and that we are challenging ourselves in the right way about what we want to achieve on the field.
“I think what we’ve seen over these past two games is the fruits of what have been a few hard weeks of training from the players. A lot of what we did at the weekend was very good, but now we have to make sure we keep our foot down on the pedal and keep driving hard.”
Certainly the Chiefs have shown a marked improvement in recent weeks, but Baxter insists that it has not taken much to bring about the change, insisting there was plenty of positives to build from earlier in the campaign, even if results were not going quite to plan.
“I’m not saying we weren’t a well-oiled machine earlier in the season,” added the Chiefs leader. “But for any engine to work well it needs the right amount of petrol going in, and it needs the right amount of air going in.
“Everything can be in place and working smoothly, but you can only move quickly if you can put your foot on the pedal. For us as a team the bits are no different in that respect, it’s more the drive behind it is different.”
And the Chiefs will need to be firing on full cylinders tomorrow night against a Sale outfit, who themselves will be looking to bounce back after successive league defeats to Saracens and Wasps.
“Obviously no disrespect to Newcastle and Worcester, but Sale are above them in the table and we’re expecting this to be our toughest test in this block,” continued Baxter. “Over the years’ we’ve not had the best record against them that we would like to have had.
“They are a very good side, with a very strong record at home, and to be fair every time they have beaten us, they’ve deserved to win the game and get the points. We know it’s going to be a great challenge for us, so we need to turn up in the right frame of mind and give ourselves the best opportunity to win the game.
“That means first and foremost we have to train well this week and then get ourselves in a place where we hit the pitch on Friday night bang on and ready to do the things that can win us a tough game of Premiership rugby.
“That is obviously the aim you set every week before any game, so we’ve re-emphasised that again to the guys again this week. We’ve tried not to be too clever about things and just remind them about the thing that have served us well over the last two weeks, as well as ram home the importance of doing the basics right.”
Although victorious last time out, Baxter has made a number of changes to his winning formula. Up front, Carl Rimmer and Greg Holmes come into the front-row in place of Ben Moon and Harry Williams; the experienced Geoff Parling gets the nod over Jonny Hill in the second row, while Don Armand returns for the first time since September in place of Dave Dennis in the back-row.
Behind, Sam Hill comes into the centre in place of Ian Whitten, who became a father for the first time this week, and Aussie international Lachie Turner starts at full-back with Phil Dollman ruled out following a knock he picked up against Worcester.
On the bench, Italian back Michele Campagnaro gets his first involvement in a Premiership squad this season after returning from international duties with the Azzurri last weekend against Tonga.
CHIEFS SIDE TO FACE SALE SHARKS
15 Lachie Turner
14 Olly Woodburn
13 Ollie Devoto
12 Sam Hill
11 James Short
10 Gareth Steenson (capt)
9 Will Chudley
1 Carl Rimmer
2 Jack Yeandle
3 Greg Holmes
4 Mitch Lees
5 Geoff Parling
6 Don Armand
7 Kai Horstmann
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Shaun Malton
17 Ben Moon
18 Harry Williams
19 Jonny Hill
20 Dave Ewers
21 Jack Maunder
22 Joe Simmonds
23 Michele Campagnaro