Exeter Chiefs may have secured their place in the end of season play-offs, but head coach Rob Baxter insists there will be no let-up from his side over these final few weeks of the scheduled season.
With just three rounds of Aviva Premiership battle to go, the Chiefs – along with table-topping Wasps and defending champions Saracens – have all been guaranteed their place in the last four and with it the subsequent shot at trying to book a place in next month’s showpiece final at Twickenham.
Who joins that trio will be deciding in the coming weeks, as will the jostling for the final league positions which, as we know, determine who will have home advantage for the semi-finals.
Currently it’s Wasps and the Chiefs who occupy the top two berths, but Baxter himself insists he is not overly worried if his side play home or away in the last four, particularly in the wake of last weekend’s dramatic 38-34 win over Bristol at Sandy Park.
“You always want to finish as high as you can, but we’re not wrapped up in a home semi-final being the be all or end all for us,” said Baxter, who takes his side to Harlequins tomorrow night in Round 20 of this season’s Premiership (7:45pm).
“We’ve gone a lot of games unbeaten now, and half of those have been away from home, so that part doesn’t worry me. What I’m more concerned about is how we train day by day, how we go into each game, the quality we show, are we still looking like we’re on the upward curve physically, are we really prepared to work hard in each game, and actually, the Bristol game was an example that we’ve worked as hard as any Premiership game.
“Whether that ends up being home or away, it’s not the biggest issue to me, I’d love it to be at home, but primarily because it’s a reward for the players and our supporters more than anything else. But we are in the top four, we are in the semi-finals and it’s going to be a huge game.”
Although Baxter is aware that a bonus point win in each of the Chiefs’ final league games will secure second-place in the table and a home semi-final, he says the focus is ensuring his squad are prepared for the remainder of the season.
“Mathematically at this stage we need a bonus point win from every game to ensure second-place,” added Baxter. “Realistically, is that going to happen? It’s going to be a tough ask. We’ve got some tough fixtures.
“Obviously we don’t know how other fixtures are going to pan out, but for me, it’s just about preparing really well day by day, and then when we go to the game, we’ve got a game plan together and we try to execute it as well as we can.
“We’ll deal with what we can deal with, but we’ve got a semi-final place now, which I think sometimes we need to remember that, and a lot of what needs to happen between now and the semi-final is making sure that mentally and physically we are exactly where we need to be.”
Certainly the Chiefs will be looking to build on recent home wins over Sale Sharks and Bristol, both of which saw Baxter’s high-flying charges come from behind in both games. Indeed, Exeter’s fighting spirit was underlined in last weekend’s derby tussle where it took a late converted try from Thomas Waldrom to seal victory and keep them in second spot.
Tomorrow, Baxter expects an equally testing assignment for his side in this fourth meeting between the Chiefs and Harlequins this season.
“Against Bristol we didn’t suddenly decide that this was going to be too much hard work and crumble, we decided to work hard and see the game through, which are great signs for me, and it’s going to be the same going into Harlequins,” said the Chiefs head coach.
“I’m looking at this as a one-off game. It should be an exciting fixture on a Friday night in London on TV, and a big crowd. On its own it’s a really big thing that we’re really looking forward too.”
Team news for the Chiefs sees Baxter ring the changes, some enforced due to injury, others in a bid to keep his players fresh and fighting fit for the final run-in.
“We’re pretty bumped around as you can imagine, I think last week was one of our biggest carrying games ever. I think we had 75 per cent possession and 75 per cent territory, we had to battle away and we picked up some bumps and bruises,” said Baxter, who has confirmed locks Mitch Lees and Jonny Hill (both knee), plus No.8 Waldrom (hand) all miss out through injury tomorrow.
Up front, there is a new-look front-row of Carl Rimmer, Jack Yeandle and Greg Holmes; Geoff Parling and Dave Dennis form the Exeter engine room; while in the back-row only Don Armand remains in situe, packing down alongside the returning Dave Ewers and Kai Horstmann.
The back division, meanwhile, is largely untouched with just two changes in personnel. Italian international Michele Campagnaro gets the nod in the centre over Ian Whitten, while leading try-scorer James Short starts on the wing in place of Jack Nowell.
On the bench, there are recalls for the experienced quartet of Tomas Francis, Ollie Atkins, Julian Salvi and Sam Hill.
15 Phil Dollman
14 Olly Woodburn
13 Michele Campagnaro
12 Ollie Devoto
11 James Short
10 Henry Slade
9 Jack Maunder
1 Carl Rimmer
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Greg Holmes
4 Dave Dennis
5 Geoff Parling
6 Dave Ewers
7 Don Armand
8 Kai Horstmann
16 Luke Cowan-Dickie
17 Ben Moon
18 Tomas Francis
19 Ollie Atkins
20 Julian Salvi
21 Stuart Townsend
22 Gareth Steenson
23 Sam Hill