Chiefs side to face La Rochelle

Mark Stevens
Authored by Mark Stevens
Posted Friday, January 17, 2020 - 12:42pm

He's been taking significant chunks out of rivals across Europe ever since he arrived in Westcountry waters back in September, but Exeter's South African Shark, Jacques Vermeulen, still believes there is more to come from him as he continues to make his mark with the Chiefs.

As one of a handful of new recruits brought to Sandy Park by Director of Rugby, Rob Baxter, last summer, the imposing 24-year-old forward has certainly been creating waves with his all-action displays.

Brought in on a three-year deal, Baxter once again appears to have hauled in another prized catch with the arrival of Vermeulen from Super Rugby side, the Sharks. Since being handed his debut at Leicester Tigers in the Premiership Rugby Cup just days after arriving in the UK, the Paarl-born has not looked back as he looks to establish himself within the much-vaunted Chiefs back-row.

"I'm loving life here in Exeter," he said. "The club are doing very well in all the competitions, I'm enjoying my rugby, and I'm enjoying the people."

Part One of Rob Baxter's European mission may be complete, but the Exeter Chiefs Director of Rugby insists there is still a great deal more to do for his side as they look to advance in this season's Heineken Champions Cup.

Last weekend's 31-31 draw ensured the Chiefs will not only top Pool Two, but their place in the last eight of the competition is already assured for only the second time in the club's history.

What is not certain at this stage is whether the Devonians will have home advantage when the quarter-finals come about in early April. Right now, the unbeaten Chiefs are battling it out with a plethora of other sides for that very honour.

However, a win tomorrow against visiting La Rochelle at Sandy Park (5:30pm) will ensure the Chiefs do in fact pocket the home tie and the advantage of edging ever closer to the latter stages of Europe's top club competition.

Four wins and last week's draw have put the Chiefs firmly at the summit of Pool Two on 22 points, a fine effort indeed from the current Gallagher Premiership leaders, who have made no secret of the fact that they want to replicate their dominant domestic form onto that of the European stage.

To date, all has gone decidedly well for Baxter's side, including becoming the first side this season to defeat their French rivals 31-12 at the Stage Marcel Deflandre back in November. A home win against Glasgow Warriors followed a week later, before Premiership counterparts Sale Sharks were disposed of in the annual December double-header.

With 19 points out of a possible 20 already bagged, the Chiefs headed North of the Border last weekend knowing a solitary point would guarantee they advanced. Tries from Nic White, Matt Kvesic (2) and Jacques Vermeulen ensured that feat was achieved without too much issue - and the visitors almost snatched their fifth win when Stuart Hogg, up against his old club, cannoned a 60-metre penalty kick against the home crossbar with the very last kick of an absorbing contest.

As Baxter rightly pointed out, the Chiefs are perfectly placed. However, he is desperate to see his players complete the qualification process with a notable display against a La Rochelle side, who have certainly produced their best European displays this term on the road.

"We've talked all year, whatever competition it is, that we want to keep things in our own hands," said Baxter. "We don't want to be in a scenario where you want other people to lose, or you need another team to do you a favour and win to allow you to sneak through.

"As I said, you want to keep it all in your own hands. We are doing that in the Premiership, because when you are in that top four, like we are, it's your results from now on in that will decide where you ultimately finish. It's the same when you are top of your pool in Europe, it's these last few weeks that decide if you get into the last eight and whether or not you get a home quarter-final.

"And that's kind of the message we've been drilling into the players. Let's keep working very hard for the things we want to achieve. We have done that exceptionally well so far, but let's keep it going. Now that we've got to this stage, to not see it home, especially having a home game in this last round, it would be disappointing.

"A win this weekend would not only reward the players for all of their hard work, but it would be a great reward for the supporters and the club as a whole. And it's for those things alone, that it makes Saturday a very important game for us."

Certainly, the Chiefs will come into the game full of confidence, having accrued an impressive unbeaten run which stretches back to early November. Last week's draw was indeed celebrated by Baxter and his players, who not only overcame a battle-hardened Glasgow outfit, but also various pre-match disruptions, which included injuries, late withdrawals and even a late arrival at Scotstoun due to the team bus being caught up in a city centre protest.

"When I look back on last week, even if we had gone in with a perfect week's training, had no withdrawals, it would still have a been a good result," said Baxter. "Going to Glasgow, away from home in the Heineken Cup, against a side who even now are trying themselves to get into the quarter-finals, that was a fantastic performance from our guys.

"To turn up there, get three points like we did, you would take that in virtually any other away round in the Heineken Cup ever. There have been plenty of times when that kind of result would have been good enough to put us through, so I'm very keen not to turn round to the players - especially after getting the three points - and start talking disappointingly about the result.

"You have to be real and understand the situation. Last season Munster came here and got a draw against us and they were absolutely delighted with that result because they knew in a lot of ways that was going to play a significant part in how they would go about attacking the rest of the pool.

"Therefore, for us to go away, get the tries we needed and fight as hard as we did, I was very pleased. Yes, we had opportunities towards the end to win the game, but we got the draw and the three points and that was kind of the perfect scenario in a way. Of course, parts of our performance were very good and there were parts that weren't so good. You never want to concede 31 points in a game, but we hung in there and we fought, And sometimes that's the most important quality you want to see when it comes to the Heineken Cup."

Team news for the Chiefs sees Baxter boosted with a number of his frontline forwards back in action. Harry Williams has served his two-week suspension and returns at tight-head, while behind Dave Dennis, Jonny Hill and Sam Simmonds also return to bolster the home pack.

Behind, Nic White misses out after sustaining a facial injury against Glasgow, so Jack Maunder gets the not at scrum-half, while in the centre Sam Hill is preferred to Ollie Devoto.

15 Stuart Hogg

14 Jack Nowell

13 Ian Whitten

12 Sam Hill

11 Olly Woodburn

10 Joe Simmonds

9 Jack Maunder

1 Alec Hepburn

2 Luke Cowan-Dickie

3 Harry Williams

4 Dave Dennis (capt)

5 Jonny Hill

6 Dave Ewers

7 Jacques Vermeulen

8 Sam Simmonds


16 Elvis Taione

17 Ben Moon

18 Enrique Pieretto

19 Jannes Kirsten

20 Matt Kvesic

21 Stu Townsend

22 Gareth Steenson

23 Ollie Devoto


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