They say the best form of defence is to attack and that’s the philosophy Rob Baxter will be instilling into his Exeter Chiefs side ahead of tomorrow’s European Champions Cup quarter-final with Wasps at the Ricoh Arena (3:15pm).
For the first time in the club’s history, the Chiefs find themselves vying for a spot in the last four of Europe’s top club competition.
It’s new and uncharted waters for the Devon club, who in just six seasons have risen out of the Championship to establish themselves as one of the growing forces within the English and European game.
Currently sitting second in the Aviva Premiership, Baxter’s side will switch off from domestic matters this week and instead focus their sights on stinging Wasps for a second time this season on their own turf.
It was back in early December that the Chiefs last visited the Ricoh, winning on that occasion 41-27 thanks to a six-try salvo that included a try hat-trick for free-scoring No.8 Thomas Waldrom. The victory, however, was somewhat soured late on when the visitors lost England international Henry Slade to a broken leg and damaged ankle ligaments.
Thankfully, Slade has since recovered and his return to form a month ago could not have come at a better time, as Baxter has seen his playing ranks swelled by the return of not only the key playmaker, but fellow long-term injury victims Mitch Lees, Dave Ewers, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Damian Welch.
All five players form part of a powerful Exeter squad for this weekend’s much anticipated tussle, which will see the victors face either Saracens or Northampton in a last four showdown at the Madejski Stadium later this month.
For Baxter and his team, the rewards are there for all to see and he is confident that his troops are ready for battle against the former European champions.
“History says we have beaten them before and we can beat them again,” said Baxter. “I think that’s a really positive way at looking at it because we’re not looking too far ahead. We are focusing on this as the next game in this season, but we are not looking at it as a one-off game because I don’t think that’s the way we should approach these things.
“I think we are now in a position where we should be genuinely looking forward to and expecting to be involved in more of these games in the future.
“The last thing I said to the players in the team meeting was that I don’t want you to look at it as a one-off occasion and we just go there and enjoy the day because that’s the wrong frame of mind for us.
“The frame of mind is for us to go there and push our game onto them, play to the very best of our abilities and we will take what comes. We certainly won’t go there and have a run around in the sun, we are going there as a tough Premiership side and that’s the kind of performance I expect us to put in.”
Buoyed by last weekend’s impressive win over Worcester Warriors, the Chiefs will travel in good stead and with a virtually fully-fit squad at their disposal. The only absentee is full-back Phil Dollman, who has failed to recover from a calf injury sustained early in that game.
Wasps, though, will be equally buoyant having won ten of their last eleven fixtures and having advanced from a European pool that also included former winners Bath, Leinster and reigning champions RC Toulon.
Baxter is well aware of the threat they pose, particularly in attack, and has challenged his players to fight fire with fire.
“It's a bit like when you try and look at a magician too much – you actually get mesmerised in seeing all the threats that are there, and you end up defending none of them and you end up not focusing on what you need to do yourselves as a team,” added Baxter
“'The best way to nullify Wasps' attack isn't to defend it. The best way is to attack it yourself, to have the ball. I think we have got to make sure we remember that. If we are attacking, they haven't got the ball, and that is a pretty good form of defence.
“That's the approach I want us to have. I don’t want us to have an approach where we are scared of them and lump the ball back down and defend them from their half of the pitch. I want us to be brave and play, we have good players as well and if we can get the ball into their hands, they can be very dangerous.”
Although victorious last time out against the Warriors, Baxter has tinkered slightly with his winning formula making three changes in personnel. Up front, England and British Lions forward Geoff Parling and fellow lock Lees pack down in the Exeter engine room, while behind Dollman’s absence means there is a first-ever European start for Australian international Lachie Turner.
15 Lachie Turner
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 Moray Low
4 Mitch Lees
5 Geoff Parling
6 Don Armand
7 Julian Salvi
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Jack Yeandle
17 Alec Hepburn
18 Harry Williams
19 Damian Welch
20 Dave Ewers
21 Dave Lewis
22 Michele Campagnaro
23 James Short
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