Chiefs relish challenge of facing the Tigers
Exeter coaches Rob Baxter and Ali Hepher insist their Chiefs side are relishing the challenges that lie ahead over this next month – and will head to Leicester Tigers tomorrow looking to build on what has been an encouraging start for the Devon club in the Aviva Premiership so far.
Sat fifth in the league standings going into this weekend’s fixture, the Chiefs returned to winning ways last Sunday as they overcame Saracens 14-12 in a hard fought battle at Sandy Park.
Certainly it was a much-needed boost for Baxter’s side, which had gone into their latest contest having suffered back-to-back losses on the road to both Northampton Saints and newly-promoted London Welsh.
However, the hard work begins in earnest again tomorrow as the Chiefs – who did the double over the Tigers last season – travel to Welford Road to face a side still licking their wounds after suffering a loss at home to defending champions Harlequins a week ago.
“We have had some success there in the past, but Leicester lost their last weekend, so it’s always nice to go and play Leicester just after they have lost!” said Baxter, somewhat tongue-in-cheek. “It is going to be a fantastic test of our attitude and our commitment to play, but that’s what the Premiership is all about.
“We do enjoy going to Leicester because it is a fantastic place to play rugby, with a fantastic crowd in a fantastic sporting arena, and playing against a team who have been one of the best sides in Europe for a long time.
“If you don’t want to play in a game that could bring the best out of you, you shouldn’t really be involved in this."
It’s a view endorsed by Baxter’s assistant Hepher, who added: "We’re excited by these upcoming fixtures because as players you want to be playing the top clubs, so it’s a great test for our guys. We know thrive on new challenges and these next few weeks are certainly a good challenge."
Having kicked off this five-game block against Sarries, the Chiefs will now come face to face with the Tigers and Harlequins in the Premiership, before coming up against defending champions Leinster and French giants Clermont Auvergne in the Heineken Cup.
"I said to the players ‘you might never get the opportunity in your rugby career again to play in a set of fixtures like this, so what are you going to do? Are you going to look at it and think what a fantastic challenge it is and get yourself right in the thick of it, and make sure you enjoy every part of it you can?’” said Baxter. "Or will we look at in a negative kind of way?
“We know we could have some great nights coming up and I have told the players to think of it that way. We don’t be weighed down by games three or four weeks away. We have got to get ready for Leicester, and I hope we can have a good bus on the way home from Welford Road because we have put in a good performance, whether it wins us the game or not."
The Chiefs will travel to the East Midlands having been forced to make one change to their winning line-up. Back-row forward James Phillips injured his knee in the Saracens encounter and is set for a prolonged spell on the side-lines, but Exeter have a more than able replacement in the shape of England international Tom Johnson, who himself was forced to sit out last week’s action.
The only other change in personnel comes in the back division where Kiwi centre Jason Shoemark returns to the fold at the expense of Phil Dollman. Shoemark’s inclusion in the midfield alongside Sireli Naqelevuki means summer signing Ian Whitten is switched to the right wing. Dollman, meanwhile, starts on the bench in place of Mark Foster.
So with a familiar feel to the Exeter line-up, coaches Baxter and Hepher are hoping their troops will perform in the heat of battle. Hepher added: "Last week was good, but equally we’ve kept level headed about it all. Like always we didn’t get carried away when we lost at London Welsh – and equally we haven’t got carried away having beaten Saracens.
"We’re well aware going to Leicester is always a tough ask. Yes, we may have won there last season, but at the same time you have to remember they were numbers down on that day because of the World Cup. It will be a different story this weekend, we know that, but equally we’re in good form ourselves and we’ve played some good rugby apart from one game.
"As always we will look to play our game and challenge Leicester in different ways."
15 Luke Arscott
14 Ian Whitten
13 Sireli Naqelevuki
12 Jason Shoemark
11 Matt Jess
10 Ignacio Mieres
9 Haydn Thomas
1 Brett Sturgess
2 Chris Whitehead
3 Carl Rimmer
4 Tom Hayes (capt)
5 James Hanks
6 Tom Johnson
7 James Scaysbrook
8 Richard Baxter
16 Simon Alcott
17 Ben Moon
18 Chris Budgen
19 Aly Muldowney
20 Ben White
21 Will Chudley
22 Gareth Steenson
23 Phil Dollman