It’s less than a month until the Cheltenham Festival gets us underway, bringing together the real thoroughbreds of National Hunt racing.
In English rugby, the season hits the halfway stage this weekend with Rob Baxter’s Exeter Chiefs outfit the early frontrunners, hotly followed by Sunday’s visitors to Sandy Park, Northampton Saints.
As the division’s two real pacesetters, excitement is already building ahead of what is the first of three scheduled match-ups between the two rivals this season.
Sunday’s lunchtime showdown kicks matters off, before the two lock horns again twice in April, including the much-anticipated Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final on the opening weekend of the month.
There will be plenty of build-up to that clash in particular in the coming weeks, but for now the attention for Baxter and his Chiefs side is on this weekend’s fixture.
Exeter’s 26-15 win at Gloucester last Friday, coupled with a 20-14 loss at home to Bristol Bears for the Saints, means it’s last season’s beaten finalists who have at least a four-point advantage over the chasing pack heading into the second half of the season.
Keen to see a purposeful response from his team following the mid-season break, which had started with a 22-19 loss at home to Sale Sharks, the visiting Chiefs duly delivered at Kingsholm, producing a powerful and disciplined display against the Cherry & Whites.
“We could not have asked for any more from the guys in regards character, emotion, energy and intensity,” said Baxter. “On the night, I thought our guys were fantastic. We talk a lot here about aligning our energy as a team – and as individuals – into what we feel is going to be really important on the day.
“As it proved, with the conditions like they were, we knew areas like the set-piece, the energy we would need to bring, plus the quality of our defence would need to be huge. What you would sometimes say are negatives of the game, actually they were going to be massively important in that game.
“Literally, to a man, that is where all of our energy and our focus went. By working hard and performing like we did, it meant Gloucester’s forwards couldn’t gain any momentum and that in turn gave us some very good territorial footholds into the game.
“Then, when we needed to defend, we defended every line on the pitch like it was out own try-line. Numerous times we drove Gloucester back up field a long way, simply through the strength of our defence and our willingness to work hard.
“For 60, 70 minutes of that game we had fantastic discipline and we hardly gave up what you’d call a soft penalty. That was vital because on a night like that, those soft penalties are the ones that will hurt you. As you saw, Gloucester’s ill-discipline led to Gareth [Steenson] kicking the points for us.”
Indeed, Baxter joked post-game that night and again this week that his side had gone for the ‘flair option’ rather than trying to bulldoze their way over from close range.
“I’ve sat here and given plenty of interviews and read lots and lots of articles, where people say Exeter have this boring drive game five metres out and that they just grind you down. What I would say in reply is, I don’t think people really appreciate what it takes to get you in that position in the first place. It takes a lot of good play.
“Last week, the conditions on the night called for a collection of points and we did that just that. We didn’t go for tries, we went for those kicks. It wasn’t a night where you could guarantee you wouldn’t make a mistake. For me, it’s much more difficult for an opponent to defend when they are stood under their posts against a kicker like Steeno.
“That scoreboard pressure put more pressure on them – and it allowed us to play more like we wanted to. Yes, Gloucester did come back in that last ten minutes a bit, but when you are sat there with two minutes to go, 11 points up at Kingsholm, that’s a very good win and you would take that nine times out of ten.”
Buoyed by that victory, Baxter will be wanting more of the same from his troops in this latest battle. Still quietly upset by his side’s first-half showing in their latest Premiership clash at Sandy Park against the Sharks, the Chiefs leader has spent part of this week spelling out the importance of an 80-minute performance.
“Sunday’s going to be interesting, particularly as it’s a top of the table clash,” added Baxter. “Like ourselves, they’ve got players injured and others away on international duty. They have also share the same ambitions as we do about what they want to achieve.
“For both sides it’s a big game. At the same time, it’s also a chance for us to put right some of the wrongs we feel after that last home game against Sale. We know we didn’t perform in the first half that day and for me that doesn’t feel right, especially in front of what has been outstanding home support here for a number of seasons.
“Yes, I’m still annoyed and a little bit sore about that – and I know the players feel the same. I’d like t think that come Sunday, this time we will come out firing and put that performance and that half firmly behind us.”
Ahead of kick-off, Baxter has been forced into changing his winning formula from that which defeated Gloucester. All three of his changes to the starting line-up come in the back division.
Phil Dollman comes in at full-back for Stuart Hogg, who will skipper Scotland against Italy in the Six Nations Championship tomorrow in Rome; Tom Hendrickson is brought into the midfield alongside Ian Whitten, who will be making his 150th Premiership appearance; and Joe Simmonds returns from his three-game ban to fake over the captaincy and No.10 role from Steenson.
On the bench, England international Alec Hepburn is back after recovering from an ankle injury; Don Armand is given the nod ahead of Matt Kvesic; while Max Bodilly fills the void left by Dollman’s elevation into the starting XV.
15 Phil Dollman
14 Tom O’Flaherty
13 Ian Whitten
12 Tom Hendrickson
11 Olly Woodburn
10 Joe Simmonds (capt)
9 Nic White
1 Ben Moon
2 Elvis Taione
3 Harry Williams
4 Jannes Kirsten
5 Jonny Hill
6 Dave Ewers
7 Jacques Vermeulen
8 Sam Simmonds
16 Jordon Poole
17 Alec Hepburn
18 Enrique Pieretto
19 Sam Skinner
20 Don Armand
21 Jack Maunder
22 Gareth Steenson
23 Max Bodilly