Domestic matters will be put on the back burner for a week at least for Exeter Chiefs as they focus their attentions towards Sunday’s Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final at home to Northampton Saints (5:30pm).
Having produced a highly impressive return to action since restart – the Devonians have won six of their seven Gallagher Premiership fixtures – Director of Rugby, Rob Baxter, is now looking for his in-form side to maintain their quest for honours on the European stage.
Only once before have the Chiefs reached this stage of the competition, on that occasion they lost with the last kick of the game to Wasps, but hopes are high that this time round they are well equipped to advance into unchartered waters.
“We’ve been looking forward to this game for a while,” said Baxter. “That said, we’ve also had to focus on our Premiership performances because it’s those performances that have allowed us to get to this point and to organise ourselves the way we want to.
“Now, the focus has to switch fully onto Europe. As I’ve said to the players this week, this should be our biggest game of the season so far and that they should be getting ready to put in their biggest performance of the season. As a group, we have to hope - and expect - that we see something special on the pitch at the weekend.”
Having utilised his squad to the full in recent weeks, Baxter – as expected – turns to his frontline team for Sunday’s showdown against a Saints outfit, who have lost six of their last seven fixtures.
“We’re well prepared and the form we have shown in the Premiership and in Europe indicate that but, at the end of the day, this weekend it still come down to knockout rugby.
“In our last European quarter-final [against Wasps], we played exceptionally well on the day – and we came up as close as you’re ever going to get to winning a game, only to concede a conversion in the last seconds of the game. Right now, I think we’re getting there. We’ve got a fit squad, we’re in decent form, training has gone well but, in the back of your mind, it’s still a one-off game.
“What we have to do at the weekend is make sure we get everything we can do right and correct – and that we focus fully on ourselves and not let anything distract us.
“All week we’ve talked about how we have to prepare to face the very best Northampton side, because there is no reason, especially when you look at their squad, that they can’t make something happen on the day. That means we have to prepare and be the best Exeter Chiefs team that we can be.
“If after that, we go out there, perform to our best, and still come up short, that’s sport. What we cannot afford to do is let the moment or the opportunity pass us by, simply because we haven’t been willing to commit everything to the game.”
Whilst the Chiefs are virtually at full-strength, the Saints have endured various injury problems, most notably around the loosehead prop area. Chris Boyd’s options in that area have been severely restricted and earlier this week the club was granted special dispensation to bring in Alex Seville from Gloucester to help ease the problems.
Ahead of kick-off, Boyd had been quite vocal in addressing his concerns over the issue and that Leicester’s Dan Cole had gone easy on 19-year-old Manny Iyogun during last weekend’s East Midlands derby. Baxter, however, thought it was more ‘mind games’ from his Saints counterpart.
had no, but Baxter – who had overseen Exeter’s response in allowing their opponents to bring in Seville as a late replacement – admitted his counterpart had been engaging in a spot of ‘mind games’.
“It is pretty obvious what reason [the comment] is made – to create some kind of an influence,” said Baxter. “I have no issue with them trying to register another player – we want the fixture to go ahead and be played properly. If we had wanted to, we could have said no when EPCR contacted us and there could have been a ruling that they [Northampton] didn’t field a correct 23.
“There didn’t seem to be any press comments when we had a 20-year-old prop [Alfie Petch] without a minute of Premiership rugby playing against them two weeks ago.”
Team news for the Chiefs sees Baxter go with a full-loaded line-up, which includes Ian Whitten in the centre. The Irishman is set to feature in his 50th Champions Cup fixture and will be joined in the back division by the fit-again Tom O’Flaherty.
15 Stuart Hogg
14 Jack Nowell
13 Henry Slade
12 Ian Whitten
11 Tom O’Flaherty
10 Joe Simmonds (capt)
9 Jack Maunder
1 Alec Hepburn
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 Ben Moon
18 Tomas Francis
19 Sam Skinner
20 Jannes Kirsten
21 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne
22 Gareth Steenson
23 Ollie Devoto