ROB BAXTER has told his table-topping Exeter Chiefs to ‘prepare for battle’ when they play host to Gloucester in Saturday’s Gallagher Premiership clash at Sandy Park (1pm).
In the first of three upcoming meetings between the two clubs – they also meet twice next month in the Heineken Champions Cup – the need to lay down an early marker, as well as pocket vital league points at the summit, is a key motivator for both camps ahead of kick-off.
Although pleased to make it ‘seven from seven’ in the top-flight last time out, Baxter admitted post-game that there were areas of the game his players would need to address ahead of the visit of the Cherry & Whites, who themselves warmed up for the contest with an impressive home win against Leicester Tigers.
“What we have to do is learn and get better because Gloucester are rampant at the moment and we know we need to take a notable step up to even be competitive,” said the Chiefs’ director of rugby.
“It is important we don’t look at the fact that we won to gloss over the mistakes that we made because we have got to get better. In defence, we got done on some pretty basic things like show and goes, we bought dummies, we pressed on people on the outside when the threat was on the inside.
“We didn’t always defend the threat, which was the guy on the ball, which in itself is very uncharacteristic of us.”
That said, the Chiefs – even without eight players away on international duty – had enough resolve within their ranks to bag success at Ashton Gate. Trailing 24-12 entering into the final quarter, late tries from Santiago Cordero and Jack Yeandle, coupled with the penalty try – three minutes into added on time – underlined their fighting spirit.
“There are things we need to do to keep working on, but I can’t sit here and not credit the players for what they have done,” added Baxter. “They knew they had to win the game and on the day they’ve found a way to do it, so they must be congratulated for their efforts.”
Not surprisingly, Baxter sticks with the large nucleus of last weekend’s winning team. Changes in the pack see Dave Dennis and Dave Ewers come in for Ollie Atkins and Tom Lawday, while behind the sole change sees Nic White – impressive off the bench against the Bears – take over the number nine jersey from Stu Townsend.
White will team up with Gareth Steenson in forming an experience Exeter half-back pairing that will have to help stymie rivals Willi Heinz and Danny Cipriani, the latter of whom has been instrumental in Gloucester’s rise following his summer switch from Wasps.
Baxter acknowledges the playmaker is a proven dangermen, but insists the Chiefs can ill afford to focus all their attentions on the England playmaker.
“Danny’s a very good individual player and he helps create a very good team challenge,” warned Baxter. “That said, it would be very naïve and very unfair to say Gloucester are not a good side when he doesn’t play. We know they are a very good side and that they’ve won some very good games when he’s not been playing. What he does help create is a more rounded team for them.
“Equally, it’s fair to say when we have out half-backs fully fit, across the 80 minutes you’ll get a more fluid performance from the team. What we have to be prepared to face is challenges all over the pitch this weekend – and make sure we don’t rest on our laurels.”
Indeed, the challenge – and that of the two upcoming European games – is something Baxter insists he and his squad should be excited about.
“They are all important games for where we want to be at the end of the season,” continued Baxter. “Obviously the two Heineken Cup games are vital if we want a realistic chance of controlling our destiny within the pool, but this is game one and it’s an interesting game for both of us.”
Gloucester head coach Johan Ackermann “Exeter so good at what they do, that you have to match that and be better just to have a chance. So, it’s going to be a massive challenge.”
15 Phil Dollman
14 Santiago Cordero
13 Ian Whitten
12 Ollie Devoto
11 Alex Cuthbert
10 Gareth Steenson
9 Nic White
1 Moray Low
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Greg Holmes
4 Mitch Lees
5 Dave Dennis
6 Dave Ewers
7 Don Armand
8 Matt Kvesic
16 Elvis Taione
17 Billy Keast
18 Marcus Street
19 Wilhelm Van der Sluys
20 Tom Lawday
21 Jack Maunder
22 Joe Simmonds
23 Sam Hill
Gloucester: 15. Jason Woodward; 14. Charlie Sharples, 13. Henry Trinder, 12. Billy Twelvetrees, 11. Ollie Thorley; 10. Danny Cipriani, 9. Willi Heinz; 1. Val Rapava Ruskin, 2. Henry Walker, 3. Fraser Balmain; 4. Tom Savage, 5. Ed Slater (capt); 6. Freddie Clarke, 7. Gareth Evans, 8. Ben Morgan
Replacements: 16. Jaco Visagie, 17. Kyle Traynor, 18. Josh Hohneck, 19. Gerbrandt Grobler, 20. Aaron Hinkley, 21. Callum Braley, 22, Owen Williams, 23. Tom Hudson