Exeter Chiefs side to face Gloucester in Europe
It’s not quite ‘do or die’ – but it’s all but for Exeter Chiefs ahead of their Heineken Champions Cup encounter against Gloucester at Sandy Park tomorrow (1pm).
After an opening round draw with Munster, then a narrow defeat to French champions Castres, Rob Baxter’s side find themselves up against it in Pool Two heading towards the halfway stage.
That said, bang in successive victories against the Cherry and Whites in the next fortnight and the picture will certainly look a lot clear for the Devonians, who last week surrendered their unbeaten tag in the Gallagher Premiership with defeat away to Harlequins.
Disappointed to come unstuck in the capital, Director of Rugby Baxter is looking for an immediate riposte from his team on home soil this weekend.
“On paper, even if we were to lose this weekend, there would still be 15 points up for grabs – and we’ve seen sides in the past qualify with 18 points,” said Baxter.
“On anything other than paper, this really is a must-win game and this is how we have to look at this game. Even then, we still have three very tough games in this competition, two of which are away to Gloucester and Munster, so it’s going to be a tough challenge, but one that we’re very much looking forward to.”
The Chiefs do, however, know how to beat Gloucester – their most recent success coming just two weeks ago at Sandy Park – when they triumphed 23-6 in the Premiership.
A powerful defensive display that day, coupled with a killer instinct in attack – which led to tries for Nic White and Alex Cuthbert – proved key to their success, and naturally Baxter is keen to see more of the same again in this latest match-up.
Baxter said: “If you look at where our points came from that day, they were different to how we normally go about scoring. The first was from a well-placed, cross-field kick from Steeno, then some great work by Santi to set-up Whitey, and the other came from an interception, which I tend to think is pretty rare these days.
“Normally, a lot of our attack and how we grind down teams comes from our phase-play, how we get field position, and then how we work hard to find those breakthroughs close to the line.
“What was key that day was that those scores and other parts of our game came from the amount of defensive pressure we were able to put onto Gloucester. Not just in terms of the scoreboard, but by continually standing in their way and forcing them to make errors when they were trying to play.
“We’ve talked a lot this week about what brought those successes in that game and how we have to again create the same pressure again this weekend.”
Having opted last week to rest all of the Exeter players who had been away on Test duty during the Autumn period, it’s little surprise that Baxter welcomes many of them back into the ranks tomorrow.
In the pack, Ben Moon and Sam Skinner are both added, while behind Henry Slade is another notable inclusion alongside Ollie Devoto. Other changes to the side that lost to Harlequins see Gareth Steenson return at fly-half, while Santiago Cordero is added on the right wing.
Asked in hindsight if he should have brought those international stars back a week ago, Baxter replied: “If we had brought them back in then we would have lost out on both counts. In hindsight, there is no guarantee it would have won us the game and we would be heading into a massive games with players who hadn’t had a break.
“And I don’t just mean a physical break, but a mental break as well. Some of the guys for example – Harry Williams or Alec Hepburn – didn’t play a lot of minutes, but they are now in full training and look good and ready to go. That little bit of a breather to reset themselves mentally and physically was important. We might still have lost the game and they wouldn’t have got that.
“A lot of the players who played got Premiership experience, which gives us a stronger squad, and we have international players who have had a good rest too. I suppose the reality of whether it has worked or not is whether we win this weekend.”
CHIEFS SIDE TO FACE GLOUCESTER
15 Phil Dollman
14 Santiago Cordero
13 Henry Slade
12 Ollie Devoto
11 Alex Cuthbert
10 Gareth Steenson
9 Nic White
1 Ben Moon
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Greg Holmes
4 Mitch Lees
5 Dave Dennis
6 Sam Skinner
7 Don Armand
8 Matt Kvesic
16 Elvis Taione
17 Alec Hepburn
18 Tomas Francis
19 Ollie Atkins
20 Tom Lawday
21 Stu Townsend
22 Joe Simmonds
23 Ian Whitten