Weeks and months in the planning, Exeter Chiefs know it’s ‘do or die’ for them now in their quest to retain their Aviva Premiership crown.
After an impressive regular season, Devon’s finest were top of the tree come the final shake-up, eight points clear of next-best Saracens, and having accrued 17 victories from their 22 starts.
But despite recording a best-ever finish and a record points haul for their efforts, Director of Rugby Rob Baxter knows that will count for very little if his side don’t now follow that up tomorrow against visiting Newcastle Falcons at Sandy Park (3:30pm).
For a third successive season, the Chiefs will have home advantage as they look to secure the necessary result that will see them back on board the team coach and en route for another trip to the nation’s capital.
Previously, Wasps and Saracens have been seen off at this very stage by Baxter’s charges – and now he will be hoping history repeats itself against a Falcons outfit, who have impressed many this season and are in the last four shoot-out for the first time.
The Falcons, however, know they have nothing to lose against the champions, who they overcame 28-20 at Kingston Park at the turn of the year, denying Baxter’s men of a point for the first time in 33 league games.
Baxter is aware of the threat the visitors pose to his side’s chances and has spent this week re-iterating to his squad the importance of not allowing any complacency to creep into their game.
“If we are complacent we completely deserve to lose,” said Baxter. “If any of the guys are, then they need to change their way of thinking pretty quickly. We have done our preview process on Newcastle now, we have looked at the situations we can expect from them and I don’t think any of the lads are expecting an easy game.
“A lot of the guys were involved in our defeat up at Newcastle recently and a lot of them were involved in a very tough semi-final against them where the games was in the balance for a long time. It would be very disappointing if anyone was complacent too because you have to expect every team to perform at their best at this time of year.
“We have had our usual look at Newcastle. They have obviously had a good season. To get into the top four is an achievement in itself. We are very aware of how hard you have to work to get in the top four, but what we have really focused on is ourselves.”
Only Leicester, Wasps and Saracens have successfully defended Premiership silverware in the competition’s 20-year history. And while Newcastle have enjoyed a memorable campaign, securing a play-off place for the first time, they finished 22 points behind the Chiefs at the end of the campaign.
“The reality is these guys have played in an awful lot of circumstances over the last two, three, four and five years,” added Baxter. “And they have seen situations arise where a complacency can always hurt you or any bit of your preparation being off can hurt you.
“But they have also seen that if they get their preparation right, you get your mental state right and intensity right, then a lot of good things can happen. We’ve seen both sides of the coin.
“We certainly don’t look like a team that is prepared to be complacent. We look like a team prepared to go out there and give it a really good go and lay it on the line for the full 80 minutes.”
Recharged fully after their impressive victory at Harlequins a fortnight ago, Baxter has a virtually fully-fit squad to select from tomorrow. Don Armand, Sam Simmonds, Henry Slade, Lachie Turner and Ian Whitten are all available having missed the trip to The Stoop.
Armand will skipper the side from the back-row, which also includes the returning Simmonds. Slade’s recall in the centre means Jack Nowell is shunted back onto the wing, Turner takes over at full-back from Phil Dollman, while the return of Whitten from a broken hand is another major boost.
“We’ve had a strong training group this week,” continued Baxter. “I would be comfortable putting any of them in the frontline. We have done that on the basis of their training, fitness and hitting their targets, so I comfortable with what we’ve selected.”
Having such riches at his disposal is a huge positive for Baxter, who admits the build-up to tomorrow’s tussle has had to be cranked up given the nature of what is at stake.
“I don’t think there’s any way you can say the mood in the camp is like it is before any other Premiership game,” he continued. “You can try and talk like that, but the reality is that everybody knows it is not. It is a Premiership semi-final and everyone knows it will be different.
“This is the third time in a row now we’ve been at this stage, so it doesn’t feel too different, which is a really nice thing to say. We are used to being here, so it feels like part of our season.”
15 Lachie Turner
14 Jack Nowell
13 Henry Slade
12 Sam Hill
11 Olly Woodburn
10 Joe Simmonds
9 Nic White
1 Alec Hepburn
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Tomas Francis
4 Mitch Lees
5 Jonny Hill
6 Dave Ewers
7 Don Armand (capt)
8 Sam Simmonds
16 Jack Yeandle
17 Ben Moon
18 Greg Holmes
19 Sam Skinner
20 Thomas Waldrom
21 Stuart Townsend
22 Gareth Steenson
23 Ian Whitten