Ricky Pellow insists he and his Exeter Chiefs side are ‘ready for battle’ ahead of Sunday’s Anglo-Welsh Cup semi-final against Harlequins at Sandy Park (3pm).
Looking to reach a third successive final, Devon’s finest must first overcome their capital-based rivals, who themselves have the added incentive of knowing a victory this weekend would ensure they run out in the first showpiece final of the season on home soil a week later.
The Chiefs know from past experience how much of a carrot playing a final at your own home stadium can be – they won this very competition at Sandy Park back in 2014 – and Pellow has warned his players they must be ready to meet the Quins’ threat head on.
“We know exactly what they will bring, especially with the prospect of a home final for them,” said Pellow “They are a good side, who play like to play with real tempo and have some very good players in their squad. They’ll also have the incentive of trying to rip the game away from us at the same time. As I said, we’re expecting them to be very strong, it’s a big game for both of us, and one that will be a real battle I’m sure.”
The Chiefs, however, will head into the game brimming with confidence following a run of results that has seen them lose only twice since late October, both of which were in the European Champions Cup to French opposition.
That impressive sequence of results has not only lifted them into the top two of the Aviva Premiership, but also enabled them to top Pool 4 in the Anglo-Welsh Cup, this ensuring home advantage for this weekend’s encounter.
Notable victories over Cardiff Blues, Wasps and Bristol in this competition have shown the strength of the Chiefs, who despite losing to Harlequins in their opening qualification fixture have bounced back solidly since.
“It was a tough game up at their place and they deserved the win on the day,” added Pellow. “We know what Harlequins will bring to the game because it’s the same every year. They are very dangerous on turnover ball, they play high tempo rugby, and the way they play will give us no time to settle defensively.
“That said, if we flip it the other way and we can stand in front of them, put big defensive sets in against them, we know we’ll get the ball back. What we have to do is better their tempo and intensity, stop their offloading game, and real impose ourselves on them from minute one. If we do, then I know we will be in a good position.”
As has been the case in the Anglo-Welsh Cup this season, the Chiefs have again rotated their options and only three players remain in the starting line-up from that which won convincingly at Leicester Tigers in the league last weekend. Prop Harry Williams, scrum-half Stuart Townsend and centre Ollie Devoto are the sole survivors in what is another powerful looking Exeter line-up that will be skippered by the returning Julian Salvi.
“The one thing about this competition is that it’s a good development tool for us and it breeds that competition within the squad” continued Pellow. “If you look at the last block of games, a number of players broke into the Premiership squad from what they did in the games against Wasps and Bristol.
“The group this weekend will be in the same position, knowing that if they go well this weekend and hopefully next week as well, it will put them in good position for selection for the Sale game.
“At the same time, it’s also great to see some of those academy players within the squad come through and get even more game time. To put them in these kind of situations is fantastic for their development and they will only get stronger for it.”
Across the board, however, the blend of youth and experience within the Chiefs make-up is impressive and Cornishman Pellow believes it is only helping to drive standards up within the playing ranks.
“We say it every year, but every competition we enter we want to do well in,” said Pellow. “This weekend we have a great chance to get into another final for the club, but to do that we know we have to perform to the highest level. If you look at the last few months, the standard of our performances across the board have got better and better and we need to keep that going.
“We showed real hunger in everything we did at Leicester last week and we need to do the same this weekend against Harlequins. Confidence breeds not only success, but it creates a real winning environment within the whole group. Hopefully, the guys can keep that going by producing another really big display on Sunday.”
15 Lachie Turner
14 Matt Jess
13 Ollie Devoto
12 Sam Hill
11 Max Bodilly
10 Joe Simmonds
9 Stuart Townsend
1 Ben Moon
2 Shaun Malton
3 Harry Williams
4 Ollie Atkins
5 Damian Welch
6 Ben White
7 Julian Salvi (capt)
8 Sam Simmonds
16 Elvis Taione
17 Billy Keast
18 Moray Low
19 Jonny Hill
20 Tom Johnson
21 Haydn Thomas
22 Will Hooley
23 Tom Hendrickson