TOP BAR - Fixtures

Chiefs side to face Saracens

Rob Baxter has called on his Exeter Chiefs side to fight "tooth and nail" to keep themselves firmly in the mix at the top end of this year’s Aviva Premiership.

The in-form Chiefs currently sit second in the standings after defending champions Northampton Saints reclaimed pole position with their victory at Saracens last Sunday.

For Baxter, though, seeing his team perched well within the top four is hugely rewarding after what has been an impressive campaign to date for the Devon club.

Not only are the Chiefs flying high in the league, but they top both their LV= and European Challenge Cup pools after two fixtures in each competition.

Tomorrow, however, Baxter's troops will again have to engage in yet another league battle, this time against Saracens at Sandy Park (4.30pm).

Buoyed by back-to-back league wins over Northampton and Wasps, the Chiefs have now won five of their last six matches and their inspirational leader – who this week agreed a new three-year contract along with his fellow coaches – says the challenge of consolidating their top four place is helping to bring the best out in his players.

"Everyone's worked very hard for this to be this big a fixture,” he said. "In the past a lot of the fixtures between ourselves and Saracens have been us aiming to climb the table and Saracens aiming to cement their top-four spot. It's a little different now because we're up there fighting and we're both fighting for the same thing for the first time.

"We knew we had a good foundation based on that first block of Premiership games – but at the same time we were aware if you were looking from the outside – you'd probably have said we had not played against too many of the frontline sides or teams bang in form.

"Although we beat Harlequins here, they had not forced their way into the top four, so in some quarters you could say we had been given a relatively easy start compared to other sides. At that stage there wasn't a firm indication on whether we were firing; really challenging or whether we just played OK through a decent set of fixtures.

"As coaches and as a squad, we knew there was always going to be a bigger indication in this current block of three games. So far we've passed a couple of tests with flying colours, particularly winning at Northampton away. It was a place we had  never won before and to do it in the manner we did was very pleasing.”

Baxter added: "Then backing it up against Wasps last week was also very pleasing because in the past we've not tended to back up that big performance with what you would describe as a really good, solid, hard-working, professional performance.

"Again, though, the good thing about the Premiership is every time you win, you keep yourself at the right end of the table and then the next game becomes an even bigger game.

"Saturday's game has become even bigger because we're second in the table and we want to stay there. What we have to make sure we do now is use that positive bit of pressure to bring the best out of us. 

"As a group we have to say we like being in second place and around the top and that we'll fight tooth and nail to stay there. We have talked a lot about that this week, but we will see which way we go ultimately on Saturday.”

Even without a number of number of their missing England stars, Saracens will head to Sandy Park packed with an array of talent that is very much the envy of many across the division. The likes of Charlie Hodgson will again be chief playmaker at fly-half, whilst wingers David Strettle and Chris Ashton are among the deadliest in Europe, let alone England.

Up front, there is an equally effective amount of proven performers, headed up by South African skipper Alastair Hargreaves and boosted by the likes of Jim Hamilton, Jacques Burger and the returning Kelly Brown.

However, the Chiefs themselves are virtually at full-strength, buoyed by the return at centre of Sam Hill, together with the inclusion of props Ben Moon and Moray Low, both of whom made a huge impact coming off the bench against Wasps a week ago.

Baxter said the key to the Chiefs' success this season is that they have been very consistent on getting their basics right to allow them to attack every side they have come up against.

"There are little changes you have to try to make every week but what we're learning all the time is that the really important thing is that you have to get the fundamental basis of your game right week in, week out,” he said. "That's probably where we had that bit more success this year. We've shown that touch more – and it only has to be a touch more season by season – consistency in our set-piece and defence.

"That's allowed our attacking game to flourish without us being under the pressure of losing the forward battle, which immediately puts you under territory pressure. If you concede some soft points you're also under pressure on the scoreboard and that damages what we want to do in attack.

"We work hard on our attacking game and we like to be a good attacking side, but on a week by week basis we've looked more solid in the set-piece and more solid defensively and that's allowed us to have good foundations in every game we play.

"In the games we have lost we have not lost by big scores, both (against Leicester and Newcastle in the league) were winnable.

"Our foundations are one of those things we have got to remember to keep working hard on every week. Yes we address the little things that come up, but we have to keep working on the things that make our game solid.”
 
15 Phil Dollman
14 Jack Nowell
13 Henry Slade
12 Sam Hill
11 Matt Jess
10 Gareth Steenson 
9 Will Chudley

1 Ben Moon
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Moray Low
4 Dean Mumm (capt)
5 Damian Welch
6 Dave Ewers
7 Don Armand
8 Thomas Waldrom

16 Greg Bateman
17 Carl Rimmer
18 Tomas Francis
19 Ryan Caldwell
20 Kai Horstmann
21 Haydn Thomas
22 Ian Whitten
23 Byron McGuigan

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