Rob Baxter has made no secret of the fact that his Exeter Chiefs side must get off to a fast start in this season’s European Champions Cup.
Defeat on the road in round one of last season’s competition meant the Devonians were always playing catch-up, but that they did with aplomb, eventually advancing out of a group which included the Ospreys, Bordeaux-Begles and ASM Clermont Auvergne.
In a curious twist of fate the Chiefs again find themselves up against the two French clubs, along with Ulster Rugby, in what is another testing Pool Two.
However, Baxter says facing such strength comes with the territory of playing in European Rugby’s top competition and he is keen his players make the most of the opportunity, starting with Sunday’s visit of current Top 14 leaders Clermont Auvergne to Sandy Park (5:30pm).
Baxter said: “A win in your first game is pretty important isn’t it? There are only six rounds of games and, as we saw last season, not getting a point at the Ospreys put us on the back foot immediately.
“Two teams picked up a win that weekend in our pool and, in theory, from then on they can stay in front of you. That makes it tough. You have to fly into your first couple of fixtures and that gives you a chance to be a leader, but if you lose, you are a chaser. We will focus on being a leader after these two rounds.
“That will be a huge challenge, but why not set ourselves a huge challenge? That is what the Champions Cup is all about.”
As Clermont have demonstrated in the past, they know the importance of getting off to a flying start and they will arrive in Devon looking not only looking to get their campaign up and running, but at the same time avenge last season’s 31-14 at the same venue.
That was Exeter’s solitary win in four previous meetings between the two clubs, but Baxter knows his side are capable of toppling the star-studded Frenchmen and has demanded that his players rise to the occasion once more.
“We have beaten them once before, so it’s not something we know we can’t achieve,” he said. “Right now it’s probably quite good for us to have a new challenge and drop out of the Premiership for a little while.
“We have battled through the first block of the Premiership really well and showed some good qualities, but I think what we’re still lacking a little bit is that doggedness and that little bit of determination to see things off. I want us to move on another level and decide to roll our sleeves up and get on with things.
“Looking at things it’s not a huge amount we have to change – and as I’ve said before, had a couple of kicks gone differently we would be sitting near the top of the table and thinking everything is alright. The reality is, however, we still have plenty to work on and it starts this weekend.”
Baxter believes the shift up in levels will help in that process and is confident his side – which shows a handful of changes from that which drew 27-27 with Gloucester last time out – will be able to rise to the occasion.
“I’m comfortable with where we are,” he added. “This week is another shift up in challenge and we all know Clermont are a very good side. That said, it will be nice to sit back initially and watch the whole European picture unfold over the weekend because we’re last up on Sunday night.
“Having Clermont come to us in the first game I think is a fantastic challenge for us. They are a proud side, have a good history in the competition, and they are going will in the Top 14 right now.
“However, we know how important these first two rounds are – these are the rounds which give you control of your destiny and that’s what we want to focus on. We want to focus on ourselves, what we do, and the pathway we want to create.
“The boys have trained well this week and there has been a real edge about training. It’s not been nice and steady and there have been a few mistakes, but I don’t mind seeing that when I see the high intensity in which they have been doing things.
“I don’t have an issue with that because it was flat out and very competitive and that’s what we have to focus on going forward because quite a lot of our little mistakes are happening in games.
“What we need to get more comfortable with is that we’re training more regularly at an intensity where the little errors happen in training, not in matches, and that’s been the big challenge this week.”
Team changes for the Chiefs ahead of kick-off see Moray Low and Harry Williams come into the front-row in place of Ben Moon and Greg Holmes; Damian Welch gets the nod over Mitch Lees in the second row, while Kai Horstmann is preferred to Dave Dennis on the blindside flank.
Behind, there are two changes with Dave Lewis starting at scrum-half and Ollie Devoto coming into the midfield alongside Sam Hill. Devoto’s inclusion means Henry Slade drops down to the bench where he will be joined – for the first time – by young scrum-half Jack Maunder, the son of former Exeter legend Andy Maunder.
15 Lachie Turner
14 Olly Woodburn
13 Ollie Devoto
12 Sam Hill
11 Ian Whitten
10 Gareth Steenson (capt)
9 Dave Lewis
1 Moray Low
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Harry Williams
4 Geoff Parling
5 Damian Welch
6 Kai Horstmann
7 Julian Salvi
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Jack Yeandle
17 Carl Rimmer
18 Greg Holmes
19 Mitch Lees
20 Dave Dennis
21 Jack Maunder
22 Henry Slade
23 Max Bodilly