Chiefs side to face Gloucester

Mark Stevens
Authored by Mark Stevens
Posted Tuesday, September 8, 2020 - 12:41pm

Rob Baxter insists his Exeter Chiefs side can ill afford to take their mind off matters in the Gallagher Premiership, even though a mouth-watering European Champions Cup quarter-final tie looms large on the horizon.

Having banged in five wins out of five since the top flight started last month, the quest to secure home advantage in the Premiership play-offs remains a key objective for Baxter's table toppers ahead of tomorrow's home clash with Gloucester (5:30pm).

The Devonians produced another hugely impressive display in defeating Northampton Saints 22-19 last Friday, a result which has put them 13 points clear of next-best Sale Sharks.

The Chiefs and the Saints will do battle once more at Sandy Park on September 20 in the last eight of Europe, but before then Baxter says the sole focus for his in-form outfit is to keep 'picking up points'.

"I say it over and over again, it doesn't matter how you get them, whether it's a four-point win, a five-point win, a losing bonus point, you just have to keep collecting the points," said the Chiefs' Director of Rugby.

"As I've said to the squad this week, we have to keep the hammer down because I could easily see a couple of teams below us winning four or five games, which in turn could potentially put them above us. I'll admit it will be hard for us not to be in that top four, but if we lose our focus in the Premiership and we become over focused on Europe, it could knock us out of that top two - and that's the danger."

That said, the Chiefs have been in scintillating form since their return to action and Baxter acknowledges it's down to a complete buy-in from his players that they are gleaning the results they are getting.

"I guess what it's showing is the way we felt about them in week one when they returned," added Baxter. "We said we felt they had looked after themselves very well during lockdown and they came back into Stage One training and they worked incredibly hard. That allowed us to push on very quickly into Stage Two where, again, we saw great results and strong performances, including in our in-house games.

"All of that showed that they were ready to go and we've been proved correct since with the performances the squad have put in. Personally, I can't give enough credit to the players for how hard they have worked. The stats they are showing in games, the distances they are covering, their heart rate scores, it all shows they are really challenging themselves, so I can't ask for any more than that because they are reaping the rewards for what they are willing to put in."

Indeed, such have been the level of performances on show that Baxter happily admits that selection for fixtures is becoming increasingly difficult by the day.

"The important thing for all the players is that they know there is a chance to be rewarded if they put the performances in," continued Baxter. "I don't mind saying, when you look at the last two performances in particular, there are guys across the board who are creating some real selection headaches as we edge ever closer towards that European quarter-final.

"The lads who are playing against Gloucester are very aware that they have to play well if they want to be considered for selection against Northampton, so I'm expecting another top-level performance."

Among those to shine in the win at Northampton were match-winner Tom O'Flaherty, together with Tom Hendrickson and Jannes Kirsten, while half-backs Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Gareth Steenson were also praised by the Chiefs boss for their input into the game.

"Those guys really stood out against what you'd call a top four opponent in Northampton," added Baxter. "As coaches, you have to look at performances, believe it with your own eyes, and see it for what it is. Having said that, the guys playing tomorrow have also put in good performances and it's about mixing all of those performances together and then judging the right group of players, because ultimately they will be the ones who decide the success and failure of the season."

As for Gloucester, who warmed up for tomorrow's clash with a home win over London Irish, Baxter admits he will again not know what team to expect as the game falls in the latest three-game block, where rules and regulation dictate the amount of game minutes and game starts players are allowed to have.

"Again, it will be hard to tell what Gloucester will bring until we see their selection," said Baxter. "However, they look buoyant, they look as though they are enjoying their rugby, and when you look at their broader squad, it's a lot stronger than most people think. I was looking at what is perceived at their change-up side and it's still got plenty of quality and International names in it.

"They'll be coming here on Wednesday certainly with a point to prove and with nothing to lose against the team at the top of the table. That means we will have to fight against all of that and focus on ourselves and making sure we do the right things. If we do that - and we make sure we lay the energy down that gets the job done - then we give ourselves a great chance of winning."

Not surprisingly, Baxter reverts back to virtually the same starting line-up that defeated Worcester Warriors 59-7 in their last home game. Of those who started at Northampton, only centre Hendrickson keeps his place. His inclusion means Ian Whitten is shunted to the wing with Alex Cuthbert ruled out with a slight niggle.

On the bench, England international Ollie Devoto returns for the first time since the Leicester Tigers game having recovered from an ankle injury.


15 Stuart Hogg

14 Jack Nowell

13 Henry Slade

12 Tom Hendrickson

11 Ian Whitten

10 Joe Simmonds (capt)

9 Jack Maunder

1 Ben Moon

2 Luke Cowan-Dickie

3 Harry Williams

4 Jonny Gray

5 Jonny Hill

6 Dave Ewers

7 Jacques Vermeulen

8 Sam Simmonds


16 Jack Yeandle

17 Alec Hepburn

18 Tomas Francis

19 Sam Skinner

20 Jannes Kirsten

21 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne

22 Gareth Steenson

23 Ollie Devoto

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