Rob Baxter believes there is a growing maturity within his Exeter Chiefs squad and it was perfectly underlined during last weekend’s European Champions Cup victory over ASM Clermont Auvergne.
Despite trailing 14-3 during the opening half at a packed Sandy Park, the Chiefs refused to panic against their star-studded French opponents, responding with a four-try blast that has seen them move to the summit of Pool Two.
Tries either side of half time from No.8 Thomas Waldrom, plus further touchdowns for Don Armand and Mitch Lees, ensured Baxter’s side claimed maximum reward for their exertions against the current Top 14 league leaders.
On Sunday, both sides will lock horns once more – this time at the Stade Marcel Michelin – and the Exeter leader is expecting a much tougher examination for his side, whose last visit to the same venue resulted in a 46-3 reverse back in the 2012/13 season.
“It’s very easy to talk about a lot of positives, especially from last weekend, but the truth is we have to go to Clermont and do it all again,” warned Baxter. “Reputations can get dented over there as quickly as they can be built up over here, so that’s the battle for us.
“We need to be mentally tough over there and know we have to perform to a high level to be there or thereabouts against them. That’s going to be the important thing and we need to show the qualities we have been doing, stay tough when they score, and stay even tougher when we score. We did that very well last week and that battle is going to be very similar, albeit in a tougher environment, this weekend.”
With the Chiefs themselves riding high both in Europe and in the Aviva Premiership, it’s little wonder there is a real air of confidence oozing around the club at the moment.
However, Baxter insists to get to their current state has taken a great deal of hard work, on and off the field, and over a great number of years. And he says the year-on-year experience of tackling the very best of the European and English game is helping develop the Chiefs squad to another level.
Indeed, asked at his weekly media briefing if last weekend’s result was the greatest in the club’s history, Baxter replied: “From a coaching perspective it’s not so much the end result you concentrate on, more often than not you look at the performance and for me it was one of the more mature and single-minded performances that we’ve put in.
“We never got distracted from what we wanted to do and that was probably the most pleasing thing for me. We started the game well, didn’t get a try awarded, lost field possession straight away and then conceded some points while we were playing well.
“But I think what the most pleasing thing was we never got panicky, we kept working hard, both individually and collectively, and you saw the results. It allowed us to score points and it allowed us to shut Clermont out for large parts of the game. As I said before, the result will only mean something if we get out of the pool. If we don’t, winning an individual game won’t mean too much and that’s what we will look back on and judge this game on.”
Although defeated last weekend, the French side have a terrific home record in Europe dating back to October 2008 when Sale Sharks were the last side to win on their own patch, and Baxter knows the task facing him and his side this weekend.
He continued: “As most people are aware, they’ve not lost a European top flight game there for something like seven years, so history says the challenge of going there and winning is very tough.
“Of course any team can go there and win on the day, but a lot of things have to go well and Clermont play not so well. Those are the factors we will have to go there and work hard on and focus on. We have to expect to play well and we have to stop them doing what they do well. We did it at home, but obviously challenges are tougher away from home.
“French rugby is renowned for being emotionally driven, but that’s what I like about it. I am a big believer in it and we are that kind of team ourselves. I like to think we are a very emotionally driven team and I think that will be the deciding factor on Sunday, it’s the team that can bring the biggest focus on intensity and emotion that will ultimately come out on top.”
Baxter plans for the game have been somewhat hampered this week with the news that Sam Hill, Will Chudley and Olly Woodburn have not trained this week, so there are changes to Exeter’s winning formula of a week ago.
Up front, Carl Rimmer comes into the front-row in place of Ben Moon, whilst England international Geoff Parling gets the nod over Mitch Lees in the second row. Behind, Dave Lewis makes his first start of the campaign in place of Chudley, while Matt Jess takes over on the right wing from Olly Woodburn.
15 Phil Dollman
14 Matt Jess
13 Jack Nowell
12 Ian Whitten
11 James Short
10 Gareth Steenson
9 Dave Lewis
1 Carl Rimmer
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Tomas Francis
4 Geoff Parling
5 Damian Welch
6 Don Armand
7 Julian Salvi
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Elvis Taione
17 Alec Hepburn
18 Moray Low
19 Mitch Lees
20 Tom Johnson
21 Haydn Thomas
22 Will Hooley
23 Michele Campanaro