Having marked their return to Gallagher Premiership action with a maximum haul against Leicester Tigers, Exeter Chiefs are now bracing themselves for two testing away-day assignments, the first of which comes tomorrow night at Sale Sharks (6pm).
Rob Baxter’s side will travel to the AJ Bell Stadium for a fourth installment this season against the Sharks, who they also faced in the Heineken Champions Cup double-header back in December.
The seasonal head-to-head reads 2-1 in favour of the Chiefs, but this latest battle promises to be the best yet, particularly as the hosts look to bounce back from their defeat at Harlequins last time out.
Tomorrow’s fixture marks the start of a busy 10-day period for the Chiefs, who will on Tuesday visit fellow top four rivals Bristol Bears, before entertaining Worcester Warriors a week on Sunday.
Director of Rugby Baxter acknowledges the games are going to come thick and fast, but he says he and his players are relishing the opportunity of what lies ahead.
“We always knew this period would be interesting,” he said. “I think across the Premiership we are all looking at it more as a three-game block. We have to address this period as weekend, midweek, weekend game as a group of three. How you use your players across those three, we’ve now had directives come down in relation to that, so it makes it more of a three rather than two games.
“What makes it more interesting for us, I suppose, is that two of those three games are going to be against two other sides in the top four. Because they are two of our closest rivals in the table, you always want to try and create some space because that allows a little bit of pressure to come off yourself. The reality, though, is that they are two important Premiership games because they’re Premiership games.
“You look at what’s happened already – Harlequins, Wasps, Bath – they’ve all won games and are starting to put pressure on what is the top four. For us, we’ve just got to go to Sale on Friday and approach it for the game it is. I’m not trying to put an emphasis on these next two weeks, simply because they won’t decide the outcome of the Premiership for anybody.”
Indeed, Baxter is aware there are still many hurdles to overcome between now and the end of the regular season and his side’s focus is purely on the Sharks and nothing else at this time.
“I think we’re all expecting a better Sale performance this week,” added Baxter. “But, as I said to the lads after the game on Saturday, we should expect every team to be better this week. I know we will be better and you have to kind of expect the same from others. What we have to make sure is that our level of improvement overtakes that of other teams.
“Right now, the reality is that there’s a lot of games coming up and a compact table. We could go from feeling pretty good about the points we got last weekend to all of a sudden losing two games to our closest rivals, then going into a game where there will be a bit of pressure on us.”
To alleviate that concern in some ways, Baxter – as is often the case – says the main focus must be on his own side’s performance and attitude, rather than looking too much into the threat of the opposition.
“The only time you can make things go your way is to keep things in your hands,” added Baxter. “We talk about it a lot here and the only way you can keep things in your own hands is by winning games of rugby and collecting points. That’s all we’ll be aiming to do. We’re just going to aim to win games of rugby, collect the points, and keep decision-making and staying in every competition in our hands for as long as possible.
“We’re going to keep it simple for ourselves. I’m not a big one for trying to predict where teams are going to win or lose. I always like to make it about us and, like I said, the only way we can do that is by collecting points.”
The Chiefs certainly adhered to Baxter’s demands on their first game back since March last weekend. Although the first quarter was somewhat sticky, two tries in each half helped the Devonians to record all five points against a somewhat new-look Leicester Tigers.
“I would describe it as one of those typical first games after pre-season,” continued Baxter. “We had Leicester here last season in the first game of the season, and although we ended up getting five points that day – and there was a larger scoring margin, the games were pretty similar in a lot of ways.
“What we saw were two sides really getting stuck into one another, Leicester scored some early points, but we stuck at what we do and we got two important tries before half time, which made us feel good about what we could do in the second half. As it was, we got two more after the break, we got the bonus point, and that was all I could ask the lads to do.
“Sometimes, what people forget is that teams don’t crumble just like that. It takes time to break an opposition down and that was the case last weekend. It will be the same this week at Sale and it will be the same moving forward.”
Team news for the Chiefs sees Baxter stick with a largely unchanged starting line-up. An ankle injury to centre Ollie Devoto means the England international misses out this time round, so Ian Whitten is promoted from the bench to fill the void in midfield.
Winger Alex Cuthbert also returns to the starting line-up for the first time since November. The Welsh international has now fully recovered from shoulder surgery and replaces Tom O’Flaherty.
Up front, changes see Ben Moon start at loosehead in place of Alec Hepburn, while Jacques Vermeulen replaces compatriot Jannes Kirsten in the back-row. Kirsten drops to the bench in place of Don Armand, Billy Keast is added as back-up at prop, whilst Tom Hendrickson comes into the void left by Whitten.
15 Stuart Hogg
14 Alex Cuthbert
13 Henry Slade
12 Ian Whitten
11 Olly Woodburn
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 Billy Keast
18 Tomas Francis
19 Sam Skinner
20 Jannes Kirsten
21 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne
22 Gareth Steenson
23 Tom Hendrickson