Rob Baxter knows his table-topping Exeter Chiefs side are there to be shot at by those chasing similar play-off aspirations in this season’s Aviva Premiership, but it’s a challenge he and his team are clearly relishing with just a handful of games remaining in the scheduled programme.
The Devon club leapfrogged tomorrow’s hosts Saracens to the summit courtesy of last weekend’s 20-12 victory over Northampton Saints and their credentials will be put firmly to the test this weekend by the defending champions, who will be swelled by the return of all of their Six Nations stars.
It’s the first time this season that the Chiefs have occupied top spot, but Baxter has urged his players to embrace the experience and not worry themselves about losing their lofty placing.
"I don't mind talking about it quite openly – we are top of the league and it is a fantastic test to see if we clam up and stop doing what we do or if we come closer together as a team and it brings the best out of us. It is a fantastic challenge,” said Baxter.
"We have to enjoy that and mentally that is going to be a big thing for us. That will be our focus – not being edgy and nervous – but instead enjoy being top and enjoying the fight to stay there.
“Over a long period this is why you work hard – to make these big fixtures happen at this time of the season. Personally, I have been really pleased with the players’ response again this week. They’ve looked enthusiastic in training, really energetic and we are generally going to go there and go for the win because that’s all you can ask of the lads.
“As I said, I don’t want us to go there and be nervy or worried about losing top spot, I want us to go there and play in a way that merits us staying top and that is what we have focused on this week. I don't think we have got enough points to be guaranteed in the top four, so we still have to be ambitious to go out and score points and win games. We can't start trying to protect something we don't have yet."
Certainly the Chiefs underlined their desire to book a first-ever play-off appearance, bouncing back from a 12-3 deficit against the Saints to score 17 unanswered points after the break at Sandy Park.
More of the same will be craved from Baxter in the capital tomorrow against a Sarries side, who remain the only team to have won in Devon in over 14 months of competitive action.
“I think every time you play Saracens you know you have to be very good and very clinical,” warned Baxter. “You have to take your opportunities when they are there and even then when you play well again them, you know it’s still going to be a very close game.
“Quite often it can come down to one of two small things. This week we’ve not talked about trying to stay in the game and sneak a narrow win, we’ve talked more about the qualities we need to show, along with the enthusiasm and the emotion we need to bring to he day.
“As I keep saying, we want to enjoy this season for what it is and we want it to go on for as many weeks as possible. As a collective we should be relishing every minute of what lies ahead. It’s already been a good season for us, but there is a potential for it to be a great season and I want the players to enjoy every minute of it.”
Enjoyment is certainly a buzz word often used amongst the Chiefs, who clearly took on board half time messages to produce a sterling second half show against the Saints a week ago.
Baxter clearly liked what he saw from his troops during that 40 minutes and says that must be the starting point when they take to the field against Saracens.
“All we did in the second half was get our heads down, kept things simple and do what we are good at,” explained the head coach. “There was no magic or no miracles to it, it was just good, solid disciplined application of what we do day by day in training.
“Sure the players will learn from that and we don’t need to find miracles to win big games of rugby, but we do have to be good in what we do and I am hoping we follow that through for the rest of the season. The truth is we will have nervy moments going ahead, but if these games weren’t big there would be no point to them. Some of the lads will be nervy and edgy and there will be the odd mistake, but that won’t kill us, it’s more how we get on with it and how we respond.”
Team news for the Chiefs sees four changes made up front where there are starts for Alec Hepburn, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Julian Salvi and Damian Welch, the latter making his first return since mid-December when he picked up a pectoral injury away to Clermont Auverge.
Behind, Phil Dollman’s return at full-back means Aussie international Lachie Turner shunts to the left wing with James Short, himself a former Saracens player, being given the week off by Baxter.
On the bench, Ben Moon – who will make his 100th Premiership appearance if summoned – is joined by the returning Moray Low, Kai Horstmann and Will Hooley, all of whom sat out last weekend’s home clash with Northampton.
15 Phil Dollman
14 Olly Woodburn
13 Henry Slade
12 Ian Whitten
11 Lachie Turner
10 Gareth Steenson (capt)
9 Dave Lewis
1 Alec Hepburn
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Harry Williams
4 Geoff Parling
5 Damian Welch
6 Dave Ewers
7 Julian Salvi
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Elvis Taione
17 Ben Moon
18 Moray Low
19 Ollie Atkins
20 Kai Horstmann
21 Will Chudley
22 Will Hooley
23 Max Bodilly