Rob Baxter insists he and his squad need no reminding of the importance of tomorrow’s European Champions Cup encounter with visiting ASM Clermont Auvergne at Sandy Park (5:15pm).
Having kicked off their return to Europe’s top tier with defeat to the Ospreys, the Devon club rediscovered their winning formula by securing a bonus point victory at home to Bordeaux-Begles.
That success means as they prepare to hit the halfway stage of the competition, they lie second in Pool 5 behind the Welsh region who themselves came unstuck to Clermont at the Stade Marcel Michelin last time out.
But whereas both the Ospreys and the Chiefs have already featured in two games, last season’s runners-up have only featured once in the competition, this after their opening fixture against French rivals Bordeaux-Begles was postponed following the atrocities in Paris just 24 hours earlier.
It’s little wonder therefore that Baxter describes the back-to-back fixtures against the European heavyweights as ‘pivotal’ to his side’s aspirations within the tournament.
“Right now this Champions Cup pool is still a long way dead for us, but we realise this weekend is going to be pivotal in terms of how we do,” said the Chiefs head coach. “If we lose this weekend, it will make it very difficult for us to progress. However, if we win, then it makes it very exciting for us.
“As always we will go after the game with the strongest team we can, do everything we can to win the game and then we will roll into next week. For now, I just want out lads to go out and show the best of their qualities.
“Yes, there is pressure on us, particularly after losing at the Ospreys and not getting a point there. The truth is that you need around 17, 18 or 19 points to make it through a group if you look at previous years, so coming into your third game with just five points does put a bit of pressure on you, especially with our home fixture coming up.
“If we don’t get anything on Saturday, then with three games left you have to look at picking up three wins probably. Where are they going to come from?
“It is tough so there is a bit of pressure, but if you can’t get in the right frame of mind for Clermont Auvergne at Sandy Park with us second in the Premiership and them first in the Top 14 – well, I just can’t see that happening.”
With the Ospreys defeat the only blot on an impressive run of recent form for the Premiership club, Baxter is hoping his players can pick up from where they left off against in-form Wasps just a week ago.
“We should be excited about this weekend,” Baxter added. “We are second in the Premiership, we’ve beaten a French team in the main European competition for the first time when we played Bordeaux, and we certainly better placed and feeling more comfortable about ourselves than the last time we played Clermont.
“I’ve said to the lads that this is the weekend for them to go out and have the game of their lives and create an experience that they’ll never forget. It’s not every day you get to play the team who are top of the Top 14, especially when Exeter are second in the Premiership, but this could be an evening they remember for a long time.
“This weekend should be fantastic for our players and I want them to be excited and want it to bring the best out of them. I’m not worried too much about what happened two or three years ago when we played them, I worry more about what we can do over 80 minutes on Saturday night.”
It was two years ago that the Chiefs locked horns with Clermont in the old Heineken Cup, coming unstuck on both occasions by scoreline of 46-12 at Sandy Park and 46-3 at the Stade Marcel Michelin.
Much has changed in that time, particularly with the Chiefs, and Baxter is confident his troops are more prepared for the battles that lie ahead over the next fortnight.
“I would like to say we are much improved, but until the whistle blows on Saturday we won’t really know how much,” said Baxter. “I’ll be honest, I thought at times in the previous two games we were doing well, but then all of a sudden they would bang in a couple of scores and at times it felt like we were chasing shadows.
“Yes, I feel we are a better side now, our league position certainly shows that, as does our performances in matches over that time. Ultimately, though, you are only as good as the performance you are putting in on a rugby field and whilst our last couple of performances have been very nice, I’m more worried about how we perform on Saturday.
“That’s how I like to coach the players and they know I’ll judge them on what they do in the here and now, not so much on what they’ve done last week and previous to that.”
Exeter come into the game, however, rocked by the news that two of their star performers this term, Henry Slade and Dave Ewers, will both be sidelined into the New Year with injuries.
The loss of both will be felt by the Devonians, but Baxter believes it offers others the opportunity to step up and prove their worth to the cause.
Ahead of kick-off, team news for the Chiefs sees Damian Welch and Don Armand return to the pack in place of England duo Geoff Parling and Tom Johnson, whilst behind Irishman Ian Whitten comes in at centre for the stricken Slade.
15 Phil Dollman
14 Jack Nowell
13 Ian Whitten
12 Sam Hill
11 James Short
10 Gareth Steenson
9 Will Chudley
1 Ben Moon
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Tomas Francis
4 Mitch Lees
5 Damian Welch
6 Don Armand
7 Julian Salvi
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Elvis Taione
17 Carl Rimmer
18 Moray Low
19 Geoff Parling
20 Tom Johnson
21 Dave Lewis
22 Will Hooley
23 Olly Woodburn