Rob Baxter believes his Exeter Chiefs squad are better prepared for what lies ahead as they look to secure themselves a place in this season’s Aviva Premiership Final.
Having advanced to Twickenham a year ago, only to lose out narrowly to double winners Saracens, Devon’s finest again find themselves within touching distance of another big day out in the capital.
Whereas this time last year it was all new and unchartered waters for Baxter and his squad, this time round the Chiefs enter into tomorrow’s semi-final showdown against Saracens at Sandy Park (2:30pm), better equipped to handle the varying threats of the Londoners.
In finalising their game plan this week, Baxter admits he has left no stone unturned in terms of preparation and is banking on his lads to go out and deliver in front of a capacity crowd.
Saracens, as they have proved so often in the past, are the ultimate party-poopers and they will arrive in the Westcountry not only looking to upset the Exeter applecart, but at the same time edge ever closer to replicating their achievements of last term.
Already they have safely secured their European Champions Cup crown, seeing off the threat of ASM Clermont Auvergne at Murrayfield last weekend, but now, they aim to add the scalp of the Chiefs to their list, before hoping to pick off either Wasps or Leicester Tigers, who meet in tomorrow’s other last four clash.
It’s little wonder therefore that tomorrow’s tussle is being eagerly anticipated by rugby folk across the land, as well as those associated with both clubs.
One man relishing the match-up is Baxter, who has seen his Chiefs side post an impressive 14-game unbeaten run, which has included try bonus point victories in their last eight games, to finish level on 84 points with Wasps at the end of the scheduled season.
Part of that run included a share of the spoils with Saracens at Allianz Park back in January, whilst the other meeting between the two clubs saw Mark McCall’s men triumph in Devon in Round Two of the competition.
Like the Chiefs, Saracens have slowly gone about their business well and are hitting their straps at just the right time of the season. Baxter knows better than most the threat the visitors pose to his side’s chances and has warned of the dangers in the build-up to this match.
Alongside fellow coaches Ali Hepher, Rob Hunter and Ricky Pellow, the quartet have looked to devise a game plan capable of seeing off the champions. Baxter refused to talk tactics when quizzed by the media this week, but was happy to give an insight into his and Exeter’s thinking ahead of the game.
“For us, we have to get an awful lot of our game right,” said Baxter “That will allow us to do some positive things in the game and obviously control Saracens as well but, as I said, that’s what’s difficult about it. It’s not creating the plan that is the hard part, it’s executing it at the end of the day!
“We’ve had some success recently in being very good at holding together our game plan under various pressures, whether we’re home or away, or depending on the pressure of the scoreboard, and that’s what we’ve got to do again.
“We’ve got a plan going into the game. I think our ball carrying, our ball retention and our set-piece has been particularly good in attack over a large part of the season and we’ve got to make sure that holds itself up. Obviously defensively we have to control the gain line when Saracens are coming at us and being decisive in our decision-making is going to be very important because Saracens traditionally put a lot of pressure on teams who beat themselves by being indecisive and second guessing themselves.”
Having the plan is all well and good, but overcoming Saracens is no easy task. The Londoners have shown time and again that they are up for the fight and they can recharge the batteries better than most. Indeed, Baxter says his side’s lack of action a week ago while their rivals were featuring in the European Cup Final offers little advantage at this stage of the season.
“The truth is, they’ve had a tough game, so we have to play in a way that physically and emotionally challenges them,” said the Exeter head coach. “What Saracens have shown is they are very good at re-charging their batteries physically and emotionally, so it is a challenge.
“We’ve obviously got to talk about that, it’s been a positive ourselves, but on the flip side of that we would have loved to have been the team playing in a European cup final at the weekend. So there are swings and roundabouts. You’re feeling good about yourselves, feeling confident about the way you can play and that you can win anywhere are very important and Saracens have that, but I would like to think we’ve got an element of that as well because of our run in the Premiership recently.
“Having said that, we haven’t seen off Saracens this season, they beat us here and we drew at their place, so it’s going to be a great challenge for us, but one that we’re genuinely looking forward to.”
It has to be said, however, the two clubs know each other well and Baxter insists his side have learnt plenty in recent clashes, including that of last season’s final, to ensure they are ready for battle.
“It does feel slightly different because of the attitude of the players,” he added. “I have a genuine feeling the players would be genuinely disappointed not to win the Premiership this year.
“I can’t honestly say that was the case last year. We were on an adventure, we got in the top four for the first time, and we had the home semi-final. Going to Twickenham really was an adventure for us and I think that was probably reflected in the first-half. I think we learnt a lot from that first-half and what we had to do and we improved in the second half.
“I think we learnt from not dealing with the final as well as we could have done. The things you have to do day-by-day to look like possible champions and I think we’ve addressed a lot of those things. That makes me feel like we’ve got a great chance.”
Ahead of kick-off, Baxter has been buoyed by the return to fitness of several key men. In the pack, Don Armand and Thomas Waldrom both return in the back-row, while Phil Dollman is also recalled to the starting line-up at full-back.
Gareth Steenson skippers the side from fly-half; James Short lines-up against his former club on the wing; while at centre Steenson’s compatriot, Ian Whitten, will run out for his 100th league appearance for the Chiefs.
On the bench, Mitch Lees is another returnee having overcome a knee injury, while international duo Henry Slade and Michele Campagnaro are both included having missed the win at Gloucester last time out.
15 Phil Dollman
14 Jack Nowell
13 Ian Whitten
12 Ollie Devoto
11 James Short
10 Gareth Steenson (capt)
9 Stuart Townsend
1 Ben Moon
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Harry Williams
4 Dave Dennis
5 Geoff Parling
6 Kai Horstmann
7 Don Armand
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Jack Yeandle
17 Carl Rimmer
18 Tomas Francis
19 Mitch Lees
20 Sam Simmonds
21 Will Chudley
22 Henry Slade
23 Michele Campagnaro