Exeter Chiefs boss Rob Baxter has played down the significance of his side’s table-topping encounter with Saracens this weekend, insisting the winner won’t be guaranteed the Aviva Premiership Rugby title.
The Chiefs have won their last 15 home games in all major tournaments at Sandy Park since Gloucester Rugby beat them in January 2015 and during that run Baxter’s men have allowed their opponents only one losing bonus point whilst helping themselves to nine try bonus points in the process.
Just two points separate the sides ahead of this weekend’s clash, meaning the victor will go top, while both sides will have to cope with the absences of a number of players on international duties.
There will be extra spice to the game, with Saracens having pipped Exeter on the final day of last season for a spot in the Aviva Premiership Rugby end-of-season play-offs, before going on to win the title, but Baxter is refusing to get ahead of himself just yet.
“Sunday’s game is a great one to be involved in because it is first against second, but will it define our season?” asked Baxter. “Probably not.
“If we beat Saracens it doesn’t mean we will go on and win the Premiership, and if we don’t it doesn’t mean we won’t finish in the top four.
“The Saracens game is important because it gives us a chance to go top, but it is not important in the sense that we have to collect the points if we want to be in the top four.
“That is something we got wrong last season. We were good in the games against top teams and we beat Saracens home and away, but we still did not make the top four because of results against other teams.
“Yes, we do have to enjoy this game and go flat-out to win, but it is not a must-win game.”
Saracens' only defeat in their last 19 fixtures in all tournaments was 29-23 at Harlequins in Aviva Premiership Rugby on January 9.
While Mark McCall’s team have gained at least one league point from every Aviva Premiership Rugby game they have played since they last visited Sandy Park in November 2014, McCall will be particularly desperate to earn a victory, with the Chiefs having achieved the double over Saracens in 2014/15.
Saracens' preparations this week have been disrupted by England wing Chris Ashton having his appeal against his ten-week ban for making contact with the eyes of Ulster’s Luke Marshall rejected, but McCall is confident the winger will use his time off positively while the club aim to maintain their good start to the season.
McCall said: “The club has been fully supportive of Chris throughout this process and wanted to ensure that everything possible was done to support his case.
“Saracens and Chris are obviously disappointed by the ramifications of today’s news, but we now have to accept this decision. We are thankful to the Appeal Committee for considering Chris’s case and for the opportunity to put his case forward.
“Chris now plans to work hard during this enforced time away from playing to ensure that after his suspension he can perform well for Saracens, and help the club to a successful season."
Sandy Park, 1pm – Live on BT Sport
Referee: Tom Foley (13th Premiership game).
Assistant Referees: Jonathan Healy & Paul Dix. TMO: David Grashoff.