Rob Baxter believes his Exeter Chiefs owe the Sandy Park faithful a performance, given their last outing in the Gallagher Premiership against Bristol Bears ended in disappointment.
Back-to-back victories in the Heineken Champions Cup against La Rochelle and Glasgow Warriors have given the Devonians the dream start to their latest European campaign, but it’s domestic matters which take centre stage for Baxter and his squad this week.
Tomorrow, they welcome old adversaries Wasps to Devon looking to build on those successes, whilst at the same time looking to return to winning ways in the top-flight.
Bristol’s last-gasp victory earlier this month was the first time since last April that Baxter’s side have come unstuck on home turf. Ironically, it was Wasps who inflicted that previous loss, one of only three the Chiefs have suffered at Sandy Park in the league during the past three seasons.
That 20-17 reverse to the Bears didn’t sit pretty with Baxter, nor his players for that matter, but the response has certainly been emphatic and one which underlines the strengths that exist within the Chiefs squad.
“I’d like to think we’ve kind of got something out of our system now, which is probably that we had half an eye on Europe, especially during those early weeks of the Premiership,” explained Baxter. “I am not going to make any excuses for what happened, but it does feel the second half of the Bristol game was a little bit like a team putting one eye on those next two weeks.
“Our performances in the Heineken Cup have probably highlighted that a bit more, simply because they were so much better than how we had played in the Premiership. Now, though, we have to leave those games behind us and switch back quickly to the Premiership.
“I can re-iterate to the players how important this weekend is - and how important it is to shift our focus away from the Heineken Cup and into this Premiership game. We can shift back into Europe next week, but we have to do it now. If you want to be competitive in this division, you have to produce performances each week.
“Getting in that top four doesn’t happen in those last four weeks of the season, it gets gained now and we have to make sure that is at the forefront of our minds. As I’ve said to the squad this week, there is so much out there for us to go and achieve this season, but a lot of that gets built around your home performances.”
Baxter continued: “I’d like to think the players owe the fans, just because their last Premiership memories are of not doing too much for 40 minutes against Bristol. I know that burns a bit and it’s up to them to set the record straight.
“We have Wasps coming here at the weekend and they beat us here the last time they came down. That result came a week after we confirmed we qualified for the top two - and we kind of drew breadth a little bit that day. If we do the same again this week, then we’ll get a similar outcome. That’s why we have talked a lot this week about our attitude going into the game. It needs be to a reflection of how we have played these last two weeks, not how we have played in the Premiership previously.”
As Baxter knows from past experiences, Dai Young’s visitors will be no pushovers and he has offered a timely warning to his troops ahead of their latest on-field battle.
“They are a good side with quality players, so you never really put them away in any game,” said the Chiefs Director of Rugby. “Having said that, so are we. We are at home, we do have a good record here, and we have got to expect that we can put in a level of performance and a level of intensity that really challenges Wasps.
“For us to do that, though, it takes a group of players laying it all out on the field. That’s why so much of what we have done this week has been about getting our mindset and out attitude right for the weekend. If we can get those areas right, then we give ourselves a great chance of getting a win.”
Ahead of kick-off, Baxter has made a number of alterations to his winning formula. Skipper Jack Yeandle is ruled out with a broken arm sustained in the Glasgow victory and is replaced by Luke Cowan-Dickie in the front-row.
Other changes to the pack see Ben Moon, Jannes Kirsten, Don Armand and Matt Kvesic all start, while behind Gareth Steenson, Sam Hill and Phil Dollman also get the nod from the outset.
Baxter says it’s imperative he keeps a competitive squad at his disposal moving forward, but at the same time he must manage game time amongst his players, particularly those who featured prominently during the Rugby World Cup.
15 Phil Dollman
14 Jack Nowell
13 Ian Whitten
12 Sam Hill
11 Tom O’Flaherty
10 Gareth Steenson
9 Nic White
1 Ben Moon
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Harry Williams
4 Dave Dennis (capt)
5 Jannes Kirsten
6 Dave Ewers
7 Don Armand
8 Matt Kvesic
16 Elvis Taione
17 Alec Hepburn
18 Marcus Street
19 Sean Lonsdale
20 Sam Simmonds
21 Jack Maunder
22 Joe Simmonds
23 Tom Hendrickson