Rob Baxter says it’s ‘all or nothing’ for his Exeter Chiefs side as they resume the defence of their Heineken Champions Cup crown against Lyon at Sandy Park tomorrow (5:30pm).
Despite playing only one fixture so far in the competition - that ended in a comprehensive 42-0 home win against Glasgow Warriors - that bonus point victory ensured they were among the qualifiers for the new-look format to European Rugby’s premier club competition.
Having thought their hopes were severely dented when they had to concede the game against Toulouse in their second qualifying game back in December due to a Covid-19 outbreak within the game, the subsequent cancellations of the other qualification games meant Baxter’s side were given a deserved reprieve.
Now, the champions are looking to make the most of the opportunity, particularly on home soil, against a Lyon outfit, who in recent weeks have really started to show some form in the Top 14.
In what is now knock-out rugby for the remainder of the competition, the Chiefs are well aware they can ill afford any kind of slip-ups in their quest to back up the success of last season.
“This is where the really exciting part of the season starts,” said Baxter. “We’ve not got the whole squad back together post Six Nations and as a group we’re excited for what lies ahead. In their absence, everyone who has been here has helped to put the club exactly where we want to be. We’re second in the Premiership, so that means it’s in our hands if we want to finish in the top two and get that home semi-final, and we’re in the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup.
“Add into that, the sun’s shining, the pitching is firming up, so we cannot ask for any more than that at this stage.”
Buoyed by the return of all of his International contingent, the Chiefs will take to the field tomorrow with a near full-strength attacking arsenal at their disposal. In the back division, Stuart Hogg, Henry Slade and Joe Simmonds all return to the fray, while up front the engine room is stoked up with the inclusion of Jonny Hill and Jonny Gray, as well as the reigning European Player of the Year, Sam Simmonds, at No.8
All of the aforementioned were part and parcel of the club’s double-winning success of last term - and all were included in that victory over Glasgow earlier this season, a result which Baxter admits was pivotal in putting his side where they are now.
“We’ve only played one game in this competition, but we played very well in it,” added Baxter. “What that performance showed is just how important it is to start very well in any game or any competition. Had we not got that result, we could easily have found ourselves playing in the Challenge Cup this weekend and not had the draw we’ve had.
“We know Lyon will be a huge challenge, particularly as it looks as though they are one of the form teams in France right now, so we will need a huge performance again at the weekend if we stand any hope of advancing onto next week.”
Indeed, should the Chiefs prevail tomorrow, they will again have home advantage against either Leinster or RC Toulon, two former winners, who tackle one another in Dublin today.
“It’s all or nothing now,” said Baxter. “It’s knockout rugby from here on in. Yes, it’s come a bit earlier than normal, but this is the kind of challenge you expect to face when you are in the Heineken Cup. For us, we see this as a very exciting challenge and one to really go after.
“As I’ve said to the lads this week, these are the kind of games you play rugby for. You want to be on the biggest stages, playing against the best teams. And if you play to win, you tend to win games or rugby. However, if you play not to lose, it’s likely you will lose, so it’s important we get that balance right on Saturday.”
Buoyed by the success of last season, when they defeated the likes of La Rochelle, Toulouse and Racing 92 on their way to winning a first-ever European title, Baxter acknowledges the experiences of those days will play a part come kick-off against new French opposition.
“What our guys will have from those games is the experience and the knowledge of what it takes to beat those sides,” continued the Chiefs leader. “We are well versed now in what it’s like to play French teams and what you need to do to overcome them, tactically and technically.
“Looking at Lyon, they are a side who are starting games well and who are playing with real pace, real tempo and carrying hard at their opponents. Equally, those are all things I know we can do very well ourselves. What we have to do is make sure we commit massively to everything we do. The good plans which often work are the most simple plans - and that means locking down those five or six key areas to create an 80 minute performance we know can beat Lyon.
“Being in and around the camp this week, watching how we’ve trained, seeing and listening to the players, I’m confident we have everything in place to go out there and put in one of those big performances I am talking about.”
15 Stuart Hogg
14 Olly Woodburn
13 Henry Slade
12 Ollie Devoto
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 Stu Townsend
22 Harvey Skinner
23 Ian Whitten