Rob Baxter says his Exeter Chiefs side must use the disappointment of their European campaign so far to make them a better side moving forward.
Hopes were high at the start of the season that the Devonians would really attack their rivals in this season’s Heineken Champions Cup. However, that has not proved the case and after three rounds the Chiefs are still without a win and sat bottom of Pool Two.
An opening round draw with Munster at Sandy Park has since been followed with defeats to Castres and Gloucester, the latter coming just last Saturday when the Cherry & Whites became the first side to win in Devon since February.
Baxter admits his side have struggled to hit top form in recent weeks, but feels a remedy is close at hand, starting with a big performance in tomorrow’s Round Four encounter against Gloucester at Kingsholm (7:45pm).
“First and foremost, we didn’t play well enough last week,” said Baxter, whose side were undone 27-19 by their Premiership rivals. “Some of the stuff we’ve addressed is whether we got up to the intensity we needed to be at over the course of those games coming out of the Premiership Rugby Cup.
“We’ve had a good look at it, we’ve talked to the players about it, and I am not sure whether we were waiting for the Heineken Cup to come round a little bit, without really going after those Premiership games and practicing being right at the level we need to be for the Heineken Cup.
“It’s a really difficult balance and it’s not something yet we have got right as results are showing that. However, we do feel we are getting there and adjusting to situations as we go along. Sometimes, though, it’s the first time you deal with things where you learn the most.
“It’s the first time that we’ve had to deal with seven internationals being away and coming back just before the Heineken Cup period. It’s the first time we’ve chosen through that three-week period to talk about some of our preparation about getting ready for the Heineken Cup.
“Has it worked out right for us? Saturday’s performance shows not.
“Is it something we can work to improve and remember in the future? Yes.
“What we actually have to do is use the disappointment of the weekend to make us better as a team, because there are still three rounds left and 15 points to get.
“It does happen to a lot of sports teams, where you maybe draw breath or something happens that shocks you a little bit, but the story of every season gets told by which team bounce through that and use it as positively as they can. It’s those sides that use it as a driver to set some high standards and really improve in the following weeks and rest of the season.”
In what is the final part of Exeter’s recent three-game trilogy against Gloucester, Baxter says a lot of the focus this week has been on the Chiefs and putting together a slick game plan, rather than worrying too much about their rivals.
“Both sides will have done their prep, but the reality is we have to focus on ourselves because there are some errors in our game that we’re not happy with,” added the Chiefs Director of Rugby.
“We got dented a couple of times last week and that knocked us out of our stride. Some of that is down to us not performing at the level of intensity we need to be at - and some of that is down to the good work Gloucester put in when they had possession.
“As I’ve said before, the Heineken Cup has lots of challenges. If you want to win it, you have to try and learn something from every game you play in. For us not to go to Gloucester with the mindset that we’re not going to win the game is just wrong. We not only have to keep the competition alive, but we have to learn from the games and commit ourselves for the full 80 minutes.
“We’re going up there looking to put in an improved performance, not just because we need it, but because we want to be a better team.”
Baxter’s plan, though, have been hampered somewhat with a number of new additions to the club’s injury list. Last Saturday’s clash saw Ollie Atkins, Alex Cuthbert, Matt Kvesic, Henry Slade, Stu Townsend and Nic White all sustain issues during the contest and none of them will feature tomorrow.
That means there are numerous changes to the Chiefs line-up. Up front, Alec Hepburn and Tomas Francis come into the front-row, Sam Skinner is shunted from back-row to lock, while there are also starts for Sean Lonsdale and Tom Lawday.
Behind them, Jack Maunder gets the nod at scrum-half, Sam Hill and Ian Whitten form a new midfield pairing, while there are also new faces in the back three with Tom O’Flaherty and Joe Simmonds joining Santiago Cordero, who a week ago set a new European record of 17 defenders beaten in one game.
On a positive note, Olly Woodburn, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Toby Salmon and Jonny Hill are all edging to within touching distance of a return to full fitness.
15 Joe Simmonds
14 Santiago Cordero
13 Ian Whitten
12 Sam Hill
11 Tom O’Flaherty
10 Gareth Steenson
9 Jack Maunder
1 Alec Hepburn
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Tomas Francis
4 Dave Dennis
5 Sam Skinner
6 Sean Lonsdale
7 Don Armand
8 Tom Lawday
16 Elvis Taione
17 Ben Moon
18 Harry Williams
19 Mitch Lees
20 Wilhelm Van der Sluys
21 Sam Maunder
22 Ollie Devoto
23 Phil Dollman