Rob Baxter has challenged his Exeter Chiefs players to continue driving up their standards as the club look to cement their place in this season’s Aviva Premiership play-offs.
With just four rounds of the scheduled season remaining, the Chiefs welcome local rivals Bristol Rugby to Sandy Park tomorrow for a full-blooded derby encounter (3pm).
Unbeaten in the league since late October, another maximum haul for Baxter’s side will not only guarantee a top four finish, but it will keep them firmly on course for one of the two home semi-final spots.
Baxter knows the importance of not only victory this weekend, but also delivering a performance against a Bristol outfit who will arrive in Devon not only looking to claim local bragging rights but, more importantly, a prized scalp in their own quest to stay very much part and parcel of English rugby’s elite.
“Every team we face we show a massive amount of respect to,” said Baxter. “And for us, the best way to do that is by preparing well and then playing as hard as you can. That is what you have to do to win games in the Premiership, nothing is a given at this level.
“Whether it’s Bristol this weekend, Sale last time out, or the likes of Wasps, Saracens or Leicester, the challenges are not hugely different on what you have to produce yourselves. All week we’ve talked about what we need to produce this weekend because we’re expecting a tough, physical game. That said, if we play to our potential, there are some positive things out there for us.”
Certainly, Baxter will be looked for an improvement from his team on their last home performance against the Sharks where, despite collecting all five points, they did not quite deliver in the manner that leader craved.
“It was a nice little reminder that you not only have to work extremely hard if you want to get positive things out of Premiership games, but you have to be focused on getting the little bits and pieces right as well,” added Baxter.
“If we’re being honest, I think we struggled a little bit with that in the first half of that game. We were guilty of not always doing the right thing; we let the game get broken up and we allowed some soft points to be scored against us which, in turn, built a bit of pressure on the scoreboard that we then had to work very hard to overcome.
The positives are we did that, we got the five points, and we showed a lot of good qualities in that second half. What I’ve said to the players this week, however, is that we have to be like that for the whole 80 minutes.
“The guys now know the qualities they need to show in training and in games; they are fit and fresh; the sun is shining; the game is looking like it’s going to be a sell-out, so there are lots of things for us to be very positive about heading into the game.”
As Baxter knows, however, Bristol – despite their precarious position at the foot of the table – will head West determined to prove a point.
In what is the first league meeting in Devon between the two clubs since the Chiefs got promoted over their counterparts in the first-ever Championship play-off final in 2010, it has all the pre-match ingredients of being some special.
“Anyone who saw the Premiership game up there earlier in the season will know it took a big ask for us to get the bonus point win,” warned Baxter. “We played well that night, but Bristol did take some wearing down.
“At this level we have to appreciate teams will stand in front of you and defend. They’ll have 15 guys out on the pitch who have a lot of pride, so we’re expecting a real physical battle from the very outset.”
But with the end of the season looming large on the horizon, Baxter is keen for his side to keep their final destiny in their own control.
“Every season is exciting, it’s worrying, and it had its various ins and outs,” he continued. “As I’ve said before, when things are in your own hands it should be exciting. At the moment, it is in our hands whether we can finish in the top two and have that home semi-final, so that should be exciting.
“That’s what I want to keep driving into the players that we should keep those opportunities in our hands for as long as possible. You only do that, however, by playing very well. And that was kind of my frustration with the Sale performance in that we almost let that opportunity slip out of our hands.
“Whether Wasps, Saracens, Leicester of Bath slip up in any way is out of our hands, how we play though is in our hands. That is why these last four games are so important. Four lots of 80 minutes is not a great deal in the course of your lives, it’s not even a day’s work, so we have to approach it that we give it our all and that in turn will allow us to have some big opportunities to play in big games.”
Team news for the Chiefs sees Baxter make three changes to his starting line-up with Jonny Hill and Dave Dennis returning to the pack in place of Geoff Parling and Kai Horstmann, while Jack Maunder switches places with Stuart Townsend at scrum-half.
On the bench, the home side will be buoyed by the return of key figures such as Greg Holmes, Dave Ewers, Gareth Steenson and Michele Campagnaro.
15 Phil Dollman
14 Jack Nowell
13 Ian Whitten
12 Ollie Devoto
11 Olly Woodburn
10 Henry Slade
9 Jack Maunder
1 Ben Moon
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Harry Williams
4 Mitch Lees
5 Jonny Hill
6 Dave Dennis
7 Don Armand (capt)
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Jack Yeandle
17 Carl Rimmer
18 Greg Holmes
19 Geoff Parling
20 Dave Ewers
21 Stuart Townsend
22 Gareth Steenson
23 Michele Campagnaro