A first-ever play-off place assured in the Aviva Premiership, Exeter Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter is now setting new targets for his side as a gripping top flight season heads into the final straight.
Alongside Saracens and Sunday’s visitors to Sandy Park, Wasps, the Chiefs are one of three confirmed play-off contenders with two rounds of the scheduled domestic campaign remaining.
Defending champions Saracens look likely to claim pole position following 22 rounds of action, but the battle for home advantage between the Chiefs and Wasps could well go to the wire if the Devon club are able to oversee Dai Young’s visitors this Sunday (1pm).
The Chiefs triumphed 41-27 in the corresponding league fixture back in December, but the Midlanders gained their revenge last month when Jimmy Gopperth’s last-gasp conversion saw them sneak a 25-24 victory in the European Champions Cup quarter-final.
It was certainly a gut-wrenching defeat for Baxter and his squad, who subsequently lost away to Gloucester a week later in the Premiership. However, refreshed and revived following a week of inactivity following their Euro exit, the Chiefs leader believes his team will deliver a big response this weekend.
"I’m not going to say we wouldn’t have liked to be in a European semi-final, of course we would," said Baxter.
"We worked very hard to get there and we came up a bit short on the day. However, it’s like anything in sport, you take every advantage you can get and obviously having our first weekend off this season has definitely helped us prepare well this week.
"Yes, it was a welcome break, physically and mentally, for all of us – and I think the results of how we have trained this week have shown we are back and ready to go again."
Indeed, Baxter was in bullish mood talking to the assembled media this week about his side’s chances.
"We can run around as much as we like, but the truth is we’re in the top four now and only two games away from potentially winning the Premiership," added Baxter. "I’m not afraid to talk about that. We don’t normally here at Exeter talk like that, instead we tend to talk about the next step and where we want to be.
"This season, though, we have knocked off being in the top six, which is fantastic, and we have knocked off being in the top four, which again is fantastic. Now we have only really got two goals left, one of which is trying to get a home semi-final in the play-offs, the other is winning the Premiership.
"And as I’ve said to the guys this week, I think now we should make sure the way we train, together with the way we play, should show that is what we are going after."
He continued: "You set goals at the start of the season and we’ve talked for some time about cementing ourselves as a top six side, simply because we want to be in that top European competition each year. Personally, I think that’s a good goal to aim for initially because the teams that are around the top six are never far off fighting for the top four.
"You can see from our results this season, plus the consistency we have shown, it has driven us into the top four with two games remaining, which is pretty good going. That said, we should want more. Once you tick off top six, then top four, you should want more and I’m not afraid to say we want a home semi-final and we want to win the Premiership, why not?
"Right now we are two games away from being Premiership champions regardless of what happens over these next two weeks [against Wasps and Harlequins]. Therefore, let’s start talking and feeling like we can challenge ourselves and put pressure on ourselves to now deliver."
Like the Chiefs, Wasps will be just as desperate to have home advantage in the play-offs and although they arrive at Sandy Park on the back of last week’s European loss to Saracens in the last four, they will still pose a sizeable test for Exeter, who have lost just once on home soil in 15 months.
"We’ve learnt from both games against them this season," said Baxter. "The biggest factor, however, is that if you lay everything on the line, like we did that last game, you still have to be accurate in everything you do. Wasps will probably say the same when they review the game, but there were three or four momentum changing moments in the game that really hurt us when we were points up.
"Looking back we maybe came up one tackle or one kick just short because on the day we didn’t do too much wrong. That is what we have focused on this week in that if you have to play at high intensity and lay down a lot of physicality on the pitch and a lot of energy, you still have to do you job accurately and you have to do the next thing that happens right in front of you correctly.
"If you do that, more often than not you can come through the big games. The truth is, however, everyone is going to be up for these big games, Wasps will come down here knowing they can secure a home semi-final if they beat us, so we have to match them, be better, be more accurate and get our detail right out on the pitch from start to finish."
Ahead of kick-off, Baxter has made two changes to his starting line-up from that which lost to Gloucester last time out. Up front, Dave Ewers is recalled at blindside flank, so Don Armand switches to No.8 and leading try-scorer Thomas Waldrom drops down to the bench. In the back division, fit-again Phil Dollman is given the nod at full-back in place of Australian international Lachie Turner. On the bench, centre Sam Hill also returns to the fray having sat out the last few games with minor knocks.
Supporters are reminded that Sunday’s game is a complete sell-out and are advised to arrive early at the stadium in a bid to avoid congestion at the turnstiles.
CHIEFS SIDE TO FACE WASPS
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 Carl Rimmer
19 Damian Welch
20 Thomas Waldrom
21 Dave Lewis
22 Sam Hill
23 James Short