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Chiefs side to face Saracens in Aviva Premiership Final

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The appearance of Exeter Chiefs in their first-ever Aviva Premiership final is not the end of the journey, but merely the start according to head coach Rob Baxter.

The Devonians will head to the capital this week with a hearty travelling tribe of thousands looking to cement themselves as the undisputed champions of England.

Standing in their way, however, will be a formidable Saracens side, who themselves will be bidding to reclaim the title they won 12 months ago against Bath at Twickenham – and adding it to the European crown they have already picked up just a fortnight ago.

It will be a tall order for Baxter and his players, but it’s not one they are afraid to take on, particularly having proved in the past they are more than capable of toppling the Londoners.

"Saturday is not the end of our journey as a club," said Baxter, "Yes, we are a relatively new Premiership club with a relatively young team, but this is just a step along the way for us.

"As a club we want to be in a lot more of these big games. We want to a better team in Europe than we are, so this is not the end of line for us, it’s just another step along the journey and that's how I want the lads to approach it this weekend."

Buoyed by last weekend’s semi-final victory over Wasps at Sandy Park, Baxter has named an unchanged starting XV for their trip to English Rugby’s HQ. The only changes come on the bench where injuries to Thomas Waldrom (knee) and Sam Hill (hamstring) mean that Kai Horstmann and Michele Campagnaro are added to the mix.

Also included for the Chiefs in the third change is Damian Welch, who returns to the fray having recovered from a knee injury. His inclusion means Ollie Atkins is the man to make way. Otherwise, it’s as you were for Baxter’s side, who will be led into battle by the Premiership’s top points-scorer for the season, fly-half Gareth Steenson.

Steenson’s big-game mentality, coupled with the experience of key figures such as Geoff Parling and Julian Salvi – both of who have lifted the title in the past with Leicester Tigers – and the emergence of rising international stars such as Jack Nowell, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Tomas Francis and Henry Slade mean the mind-set should be there for the Chiefs to sparkle.

"Guys like Nowellsy, Dickie and Sladey, they’ve played in front of 80,000 crowds before," added Baxter. "Then the likes of Geoff and Julian Salvi, they’ve been in finals before and won the competition, so when you look at the squad we’ve actually got quite a few guys who have been in this type of environment before. The challenge, however, will be if we can bring it all together as a team."

This season, though, the Chiefs have shown they have the capability of rising to the occasion. This is, however, new territory, particularly when you consider this is only Exeter’s sixth season in the top flight.

Baxter insists that the rise of the club is nothing new for those in and around the Westcountry and that there was life before a rain-sodden night in Bristol back in 2010.

"The big thing is we have always believed," he said. "That is one of our big foundation elements. I say this a lot, but people seem to never look back beyond that last year in the Championship. Personally, I’ve played in  two losing Cup Finals at Twickenham, I’ve coach in another two, and I remember finishing second and third quite a few times and missing out on promotion.

"But what we have never done is go away – we’ve always come back and got back on the horse. That’s the foundation element we have at the club and it backs up what we have done since."

With recent encounters between the two sides serving up a feast of rugby, Baxter expects tomorrow’s tussle to be just as exciting.

"I don’t think we will be a team who will just be going there to walk around Twickenham in the sun," said Baxter. "We are going to turn up and, I know, if we turn up we will make it a very interesting game.

"There is no doubt – and quite rightly so – they are being regarded as the best team in Europe and they are a much better team than when we beat them twice last season. That said, we’re also a much better team now.

"I think the biggest compliment I can pay them is that they do the basics very well. On top of that they have a good team spirit, a strong work ethic and they are well coached. However, if you look at the last four games between us, it’s 2-2, but could easily have been 3-1 to us as it was a real close game down here earlier this season.

"That says to me that we have got a lot within us to get where we need to be and hopefully we will show that at the weekend."

15 Phil Dollman
14 Jack Nowell
13 Henry Slade
12 Ian Whitten
11 Olly Woodburn
10 Gareth Steenson (capt)
9 Will Chudley

1 Ben Moon
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Harry Williams
4 Mitch Lees
5 Geoff Parling
6 Dave Ewers
7 Julian Salvi
8 Don Armand

16 Jack Yeandle
17 Alec Hepburn
18 Tomas Francis
19 Damian Welch
20 Kai Horstmann
21 Dave Lewis
22 Michele Campagnaro
23 James Short

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BATH, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03:  Maro Itoje of  Saracens is tackled by Max Lahiff of Bath during the Aviva Premiership match between Bath Rugby and Saracens at the Recreation Ground on December 3, 2016 in Bath, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)