Exeter Chiefs may find themselves in unchartered waters when it comes to the Aviva Premiership play-offs, but head coach Rob Baxter wants his team to make the most of the opportunity afforded to them this weekend.
Having finished the scheduled English season in second spot, accruing 15 wins from 22 games, the Chiefs have home advantage for tomorrow’s visit of Wasps to a packed out Sandy Park (3:15pm).
It will mark the fourth meeting of the season between the two clubs, but it’s arguably the biggest yet with the prize on offer a trip to Twickenham a week later in the showpiece event of the domestic season.
Buoyed by back-to-back victories over Wasps (24-3) and Harlequins (62-24) in their final two league games, plus the enforced week’s break while European matters were concluded, Baxter’s side could not have come into this last four showdown in better shape.
However, Baxter is refusing to read too much into recent form and insists it’s what his side ultimately do during the 80 minutes tomorrow that will ultimately matter the most.
"It’s been a good last two weeks for us, but it’s important to remember what created that," said the Chiefs coach. "What was key was that we had good training weeks, plus that understanding from every one of just how important the games were for us and the individual roles they had to play.
"That’s what we have talked about and has been the focus for this week. It’s about working hard for one another, being physical and being prepared to commit everything if you want to those big games of rugby."
With the Devon club 2-1 up in victories so far between the two sides, Baxter expects this final instalment to bring out the best in both teams.
"In theory it’s the biggest game for both sides," said the Exeter leader. "As clubs we’ve worked incredibly hard all season to get here and to get to this point, so I can’t imagine any of us will want to give it up without a real fight.
"Both ourselves and Wasps know a fair bit about each other, but there’s also that opportunity to bring in the odd thing that’s a bit different. I’m sure both of us will look to do that, but it’s also about making the most of what we have got and how we play.
"Now is not the time to be trying to find magic answers because a lot of the time there are not too many of those answers around. The reality is over 80 minutes you need to win the work-rate and physicality battles first and foremost.
"Dai Young has said he wants to see the best of Wasps and I’m no different, I want to see the best from Exeter. Normally at home if you see the best of us, you normally see us win a game of rugby. However, we know it will be a huge test for us and one that we have to work incredibly hard to win."
Although victorious last time out at Harlequins – where the Chiefs ran in ten tries during their thumping victory – Baxter has made changes to his winning formula.
Up front, Ben Moon and Luke Cowan-Dickie come into the front-row; Geoff Parling replaces the injured Damian Welch (knee) at lock; while Don Armand has recovered from an elbow injury and is preferred at No.8 to Thomas Waldrom.
In the back division, Ian Whitten is given the nod at centre ahead of Sam Hill, while Olly Woodburn is also recalled at the expense of James Short, who drops to the bench.
Personnel in place, Baxter is also hoping the capacity Exeter crowd will also be at full-strength for arguably one of the biggest fixtures in the club’s history.
"Our support this year has been fantastic," added Baxter. "Everyone knows Sandy Park is one of the best atmospheres in the Premiership when it’s rocking, so it’s important the team play well to get that support going and really behind us.
"Our guys will need to show the crowd they are willing work hard, give everything, and get them involved in the game from minute one."
And helping to ensure the Chiefs settle from the outset will be the likes of senior stars such as Parling, Waldrom, Woodburn and Julian Salvi, all of whom know what it takes to be emerge victorious from a play-off semi-final.
"They've all got important roles to play over the course of the week and they've been doing that over the course of the season.
"What I don't want guys like Geoff and Julian to worry about is to think they've got to go out there and win the game on their own – what's important for them is to understand their place in the jigsaw. That's where we've been good over the last couple of weeks, the 15 on the pitch have understood their roles and executed them very well. You don't go into a semi-final now and start to try and change things and overcompensate for things – what a good team does now is lock down and do their roles extremely well."
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 Ollie Atkins
20 Thomas Waldrom
21 Dave Lewis
22 Sam Hill
23 James Short