Exeter Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter says his side will need to turn up the intensity levels ahead of tomorrow’s Aviva Premiership encounter with Leicester Tigers at Welford Road (7:45pm).
Although undefeated in the top flight since Bath won at Sandy Park at the end of October, the Chiefs have spent this week gearing up for arguably one of the toughest tests on the Premiership calendar.
Having one just once at the home of the Tigers since their elevation into English rugby’s top tier in 2010, Baxter and his in-form team will be looking to improve their win ratio with a big display against their fellow play-off rivals.
“The truth is we’re really looking forward to the game, it should be a good test for us” said Baxter, who is targeting a high impact start from his team tomorrow. “We are going along well in the Premiership, we’ve not
lost since October, and we’re getting to the business end of the season where you are starting to see the top four or five clubs have some tough fixtures.
“It’s going to be an interesting shake-up over these final weeks for all of us, but for us the only focus is that of Leicester this Friday. We know we have to go up there in the right frame of mind, the right levels of energy and hit the pitch with a real intensity.
“We have not talked in too much detail about the Leicester game beyond how we want to start the game, just because the reality is we can try and talk about game plans, patterns of play and defensively structures, but if we don’t turn up and don’t go onto the pitch committed to win then, the game itself doesn’t mean too much.”
Certainly the Chiefs have demonstrated in recent weeks that they are starting to hit their straps ahead of the final run-in, a point emphasised with decent returns against Wasps, Worcester Warriors and, most recently, Newcastle Falcons.
Those results have helped to lift the Devonians into second spot in the table and in one of the two crucial home play-off berths.
Baxter acknowledges there is still “plenty to play for” over the coming weeks, but is pleased that his team have put matters firmly in their own hands with some hard-working displays.
“This may sound a little ridiculous, but if you want to finish in the top two, the best way to do that is to win every game you play,” added Baxter. “The truth is, that will take a lot of hard work and composure – and we will have to play exceptionally well because we’re coming up against some very good sides. However, that’s the only way to do it!
“If you wait around and wait for teams to lose, you’re getting it wrong. I want us to keep things in our hands and hopefully be second again next week because we’ve done well at Leicester, not because other teams have lost. For all of us, that’s a really good focus and something I will be looking to drive home every week.”
Overcoming the Tigers in their own lair, though, is no easy feat and the Chiefs – who show a handful of changes to their starting line-up – will need to be on top of their game to prevail.
As always, Baxter and his team have carried out detailed analysis of their rivals and is aware of the threat they pose to his side’s unbeaten run of games.
“Looking at how Leicester have played, there is no magic ingredient to what they are doing,” said Baxter. “What they have found recently is a very good level of intensity and they are doing what they have to do to win games of rugby.
“People will be aware that we had a slow start to the season, but we’ve worked hard to turn that around. It’s not because we’ve changed our style or play or patterns massively, we’re doing pretty much the same now as we were at the start, it’s that collectively and individually our intensity levels were a fraction off.
“Leicester went through a similar period themselves, but like us they’ve have cranked things up and they have a group of players who are really going for it.
“For me, the first five minutes on Friday is the battle I am most interested in, what happens after that what will be, will be. What I want to see first and foremost is an Exeter team that turns up and ready to go flat out from minute one.”
Team news for the Chiefs sees Baxter add Carl Rimmer and Luke Cowan-Dickie to his front-row in place of Ben Moon and Jack Yeandle; Stuart Townsend gets his first-ever Premiership start at scrum-half ahead of Jack Maunder, while behind England international Henry Slade is recalled at fly-half ahead of Joe Simmonds.
With Yeandle on the bench and Gareth Steenson still out with a hamstring injury, flanker Don Armand skippers the visitors in the Midlands.
15 Phil Dollman
14 Olly Woodburn
13 Ian Whitten
12 Ollie Devoto
11 James Short
10 Henry Slade
9 Stuart Townsend
1 Carl Rimmer
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Harry Williams
4 Mitch Lees
5 Geoff Parling
6 Don Armand (capt)
7 Kai Horstmann
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Jack Yeandle
17 Ben Moon
18 Tomas Francis
19 Jonny Hill
20 Sam Simmonds
21 Jack Maunder
22 Joe Simmonds
23 Sam Hill