Whilst it may be seen as a step into the unknown for some, Rob Baxter says the challenge of getting his Exeter Chiefs squad primed and ready for midweek fixtures is something that is largely ‘exciting’ for him and his players.
Just four days after claiming maximum reward from their 32-22 win at Sale Sharks, the Chiefs travel to local rivals Bristol Bears tomorrow night for their Round 15 Gallagher Premiership encounter at Ashton Gate (7:45pm).
In what is the second of three fixtures in just over a week for the table-topping Chiefs, Baxter - like his coaching counterparts across the division - will have to mull over a series of selection quandaries, given no player is able to start all three games in this block.
Having stuck largely with an unchanged starting XV for their bonus point victories against Leicester Tigers and Sale Sharks, only winger Olly Woodburn remains in place from those two games for tomorrow’s short trip up the M5.
“It’s a little bit of a trip into the unknown,” explained the Chiefs’ Director of Rugby. “Tomorrow is our first midweek fixture, which is interesting in itself, and it’s our first short turnaround from a game at the weekend.
“When you look at it, it’s probably going to be the first time where teams will genuinely make a lot of changes, because there are the regulations for these midweek blocks where you have that element of limiting game minutes for players and also that no players can start all three games.
“It will be interesting to see what teams do and how they approach it, but at the same time it’s also very exciting. Going to Bristol at any time should be exciting, but because it’s a top of the table clash in the Premiership it just adds to everything.
“I said to the players yesterday, what you have to remember with all of this is, this is still a Premiership fixture!
“It’s not a run-of-the-mill midweek game, nor is it like an A League or Premiership Cup game, this is a Premiership game - albeit played at a different time - but we have to approach it in exactly the same manner as we would a weekend game, That means I expect the guys to commit all of their time, their energy and their emotion into producing a big performance on Tuesday.”
Certainly, the Chiefs have done just that in their opening two fixtures since restart and Baxter is calling on those who take to the field against the Bears to not only match that effort, but indeed raise the standards even higher.
“The collection of points we’ve had helps ease the pressure, but we need to keep challenging ourselves,” he added. “What will be good to see against Bristol is that we have a new group of players involved, who we not only want to up the standards, but help move us forward week by week.
“As I said, it’s a big Premiership game of rugby between the top two sides in the division. Whatever happens on Tuesday won’t define the season for either side, yet there is an opportunity for points and when you are a side in and around that top four, that top six, every point is precious.
“Having picked up ten points is fantastic and it keeps us on the trajectory we want to be on, especially with things like the European quarter-final coming up as well. What’s funny, though, is after Sunday’s game we will have already played four games, that’s halfway through the rounds, so things are coming thick and fast right now and we’re starting to see the end of the season already.”
With so much to play for, the upbeat vibe around Sandy Park is certainly clear to see. However, the fact remains nothing is easily given at this level and Baxter is adamant his players must continue to keep working hard.
“I guess the most pleasing thing about Friday’s win was the way in which we grew as a team through the game,” he continued. “What that highlights is you have to be willing to fight and work as hard as you can, for as long as you can in the game. If you do that, ultimately your rewards will come.
“The important work you do early will count at some stage. At the time it may not feel like that, but it will come. What we’re getting very good at is understanding the work we do 5, 10, 15, 20 minutes into the game will reap it’s rewards later in the game.”
Aside from Woodburn, the Chiefs have made 14 changes to their starting line-up from that which won at the AJ Bell Stadium. Skipper Jack Yeandle heads up a pack which sees Welsh International prop Tomas Francis make his first league start since May 2019.
Behind, Scottish international Sam Hidalgo-Clyne gets his first start in the No.9 jersey for his new club, while fellow newcomer Josh Hodge will also make his Premiership debut at full-back.
15 Josh Hodge
14 Tom O’Flaherty
13 Phil Dollman
12 Tom Hendrickson
11 Olly Woodburn
10 Gareth Steenson
9 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne
1 Alec Hepburn
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Tomas Francis
4 Dave Dennis
5 Sam Skinner
6 Jannes Kirsten
7 Don Armand
8 Sean Lonsdale
16 Jack Innard
17 Billy Keast
18 Marcus Street
19 Will Witty
20 Richard Capstick
21 Joe Snow
22 Harvey Skinner
23 Tom Wyatt