At the start of the season Rob Baxter made no secret of the fact that conquering Europe would be a key objective for his Exeter Chiefs side this season.
Having proved their worth for a number of years domestically in the Gallagher Premiership, the Heineken Champions Cup has proved more troublesome for the Devonians, who have made it to the knock-out stages only once in the past.
Three rounds into this year’s competition, the Chiefs are certainly living up to Baxter’s pre-tournament pledge. Three successive victories over La Rochelle, Glasgow Warriors and Sale Sharks - two of those away from home - have put them on 14 out of a possible 15 points in Pool Two.
Not only do they head the table by six points from next-best Glasgow, but victory over the Sharks at Sandy Park on Sunday (1pm) will all but ensure they will be amongst the eight clubs battling it out in the quarter-final stages come April.
It’s the best start the Chiefs have ever had to a Champions Cup campaign, but Director of Rugby Baxter knows there is still plenty to do in the final three rounds, starting with another big performance against Premiership counterparts Sale.
In what is the second leg of the annual European double-header, Baxter has spent this week instilling into his players the importance of backing up last week’s win at the AJ Bell Stadium, as well as understanding the potent threat of the Sharks, who would love nothing better than to take a bite out of their hosts and ignite their own qualification hopes.
“Everyone is aware of the story of double-headers,” said Baxter. “The story is one team goes ahead and wins the first game, then the other team come back and bite them in the second game.
“Having said that, this is a slightly different scenario in which we’ve gone away, yes we won, but there were enough issues in that game for us to work on and make sure we play better this week. Obviously the goals and what the players want to achieve in terms of winning the game are huge, so I would like to think that those things, along with us as a coaching staff not being afraid to tell them, pretty much in every coaching session this week, not to let this opportunity slip through their hands will mean the guys turn up on Sunday.”
A dominant first half display against the Sharks laid the foundation for their latest European success, but the Chiefs were made to force dig deep - particularly in the last quarter - to fend off a strong Sharks attack late on.
“I’m not saying we got complacent last week, because I don’t think we did, but in the second half we had some really good opportunities to put that game to bed, yet we found a variety of ways not to do that,” said Baxter.
“As I’ve said to the players this week, the important thing we learn from that game is that we maintain focus for longer periods and that we make sure what our focus is. It’s about the here and now and making sure we have real clarity on the next part of the game. As long as we throw our energies into the right areas, I know we will be fine. I say that because I know we are strong, energetic, hard-working team who, when those energies are pointed in the right direction, are very good at what we do.
“If we turn up a little nervous, a little jittery, a little edgy on Sunday, I don’t mind that. I’d rather we turn up like that, than a little bit complacent. I’ve seen that in training today, we look a little bit on edge, and that’s normally a good sign.”
It’s tough-talking from Baxter, but he insists gone are the days when the Chiefs can just talk about turning up and competing against Europe’s elite. Now, the expectation levels, both inwardly and outwardly, demand that this Exeter outfit start to show their full force.
“I wouldn’t swap this for anything else,” explained Baxter. “We are well set in the pool, we have three rounds left, and this weekend we can give ourselves a huge step up into where we want to go in regards of the competition. I just think we have to be prepared to talk about it like that.
“I think the days when all I remember talking about as a coach were about talking games down, we’re years past that now. We have got to be prepared as a club, as a team, and as a coaching group to talk games up and this is huge opportunity for us. We should expect to go out and perform well, it’s as simple as that!
“Over the years we have learnt steadily - and surely - that positive pressure Is good for us. This weekend’s game is a perfect example to see if Heineken Cup pressure is a positive thing for us.”
Heading into the game Baxter is buoyed by the fact that summer signing Stuart Hogg has been passed fit for selection, despite coming off just moments after scoring his first-ever try for the club last weekend.
The Scotland and British Lions star was instrumental in Exeter’s opening two tries, his searing break creating the opening for the penalty try, after which he turned on the after burners to claim his own score.
Sadly, he withdrew from the action shortly after, but Baxter says the full-back has gone through all the return to play protocols this week and is fit and raring to go in a completely unchanged Chiefs match-day squad.
15 Stuart Hogg
14 Jack Nowell
13 Henry Slade
12 Sam Hill
11 Ian Whitten
10 Joe Simmonds
9 Nic White
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 Marcus Street
19 Jannes Kirsten
20 Don Armand
21 Jack Maunder
22 Gareth Steenson
23 Olly Woodburn