Exeter Chiefs may be only one game into their last European Champions Cup escapade, but head coach Rob Baxter is all but resigned to the fact that it’s effectively ‘win or bust’ for his side this weekend.
Undone 35-8 by current French Top 14 leaders ASM Clermont Auvergne last Sunday, the Aviva Premiership outfit head across the Irish Sea for Saturday’s Round Two clash with Ulster Rugby at the Kingspan Stadium (7:45pm).
Like the Chiefs, the Irishman started their own Pool 5 exploits with defeat against French opposition, going down 28-13 away to Bordeaux-Begles.
However, they will be hoping a return to home comforts in front of a sell-out crowd in Belfast will provide the necessary spark they need to get their own campaign up and running.
Baxter is aware of the challenge that faces his side, but believes a few home truths spoken in the aftermath of last weekend’s defeat will have the desired effect against the Irish province.
“A few things were said, but that makes it sound like there is a huge issue and I don’t want it to sound like that,” said the Exeter coach. “All we really said was we need to understand that things have moved on from last season.
“Yes, we got to a Premiership final and we got to a European quarter-final for the first time, but as good as last season may have felt for all of us, we have actually drawn breath a little bit.
“As a club, individual players and as a team I think we’ve perhaps spent a little bit too long looking back at last year and maybe expecting and hoping for a bit of a roll on. In truth, we haven’t dropped completely off the pace because we’ve won some games and we’re fifth in the Premiership, so things are not exactly falling apart.
“What I’ve said in terms of a few home truths to the lads is that you can want to be a bit of an underdog team who enjoy knocking people off and who enjoy getting to places for the first time – or you can relish being a side that got to a Premiership final and when teams come up against you and bring their best, you enjoy batting that off and enjoy showing everyone you want to be a dominant side who want to be at the top tier.”
For the Chiefs to achieve Baxter’s objective, he has outlined that not only do they need to become more pro-active, rather than reactive, but also train and perform at an intensity that is above what they are current producing.
“It’s certainly in us because we have showed that at times this season,” added Baxter. “It’s not like we have to keep harping back to last season because we have done that in games this season. What we’ve reminded the lads of this week is to have that confidence that they are a good side and to go out and play with speed and a real intensity that I know we’re capable of.
“At the moment I would describe us as being a reactive team, rather than a pro-active team. That’s been highlighted with some of the points we’ve conceded recently, but it’s also something we can fix pretty easily.
“It’s not like we are being battered down and broken down by sides, we are doing that to others to score our points, it’s more other teams are coming up with one or two moments in the game which flick the whole momentum of the match.
“Clermont did it to us a couple of times last week and it’s happened in other games as well. Anyone who has watched us, though, will know they we have been dominating in games for long periods. The opening period up at Northampton, for long periods against Bristol and against Harlequins we did it, and for the first 20 minutes against Clermont we dominated.
“Anyone who sat down and watched the first 20 minutes last week would have been really confident about how they game was going to go, but it’s those little moments elsewhere which are proving really costly for us right now. They are moments which are really hurting us and that in turns means we then get a little bit edgy and a little bit nervous when we have to chase the scoreboard.”
That said, Baxter is confident the make-up of the Chiefs squad means that such issues can be addressed and that begins against Ulster this weekend.
“We have faced plenty of challenges before as a side and every challenge I’ve laid in front of the players they have always reacted to, so this is now a good challenge for us,” continued Baxter. “We know where we stand and we’re not going to talk about just rolling on and thinking things will be OK. We are going to react to things and make things happen.
“Ulster we know will be tough opponents because they are at home and they are in similar position to us in the fact they need to get something out of the game. That will mean Saturday should be a great fixture for both sides.”
With England international Luke Cowan-Dickie the latest addition to the treatment room at Sandy Park with an ankle injury, Baxter has again tweaked his squad ahead of kick-off.
Club captain Jack Yeandle is promoted from the bench to fill the void left by Cowan-Dickie at hooker, while behind Mitch Lees comes into the second row for Damian Welch. In the back division, former Ulster player Ian Whitten moves into the centre to form a new partnership alongside Henry Slade, while James Short is recalled on the left wing.
On the bench, Elvis Taione and Jonny Hill get their first taste of competitive first team action this season, while Jack Maunder – debutant last weekend – gets another crack alongside Sam Hill and Ollie Devoto.
15 Lachie Turner
14 Olly Woodburn
13 Ian Whitten
12 Henry Slade
11 James Short
10 Gareth Steenson (capt)
9 Dave Lewis
1 Moray Low
2 Jack Yeandle
3 Harry Williams
4 Mitch Lees
5 Geoff Parling
6 Kai Horstmann
7 Julian Salvi
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Elvis Taione
17 Carl Rimmer
18 Tomas Francis
19 Jonny Hill
20 Dave Dennis
21 Jack Maunder
22 Sam Hill
23 Ollie Devoto