Exeter Chiefs are confident they can end their Headingley hoodoo and at the same time firmly cement their place in next season’s Aviva Premiership by overcoming Leeds Carnegie on Sunday (3pm).
In seven previous treks to Yorkshire, the Chiefs have come unstuck on every occasion, including that of two seasons ago when the visitors were undone 18-16 thanks to a late try from replacement Tom Biggs.
Six of this weekend’s Exeter squad are survivors from that occasion and, according to assistant coach Ali Hepher, they are desperate to set the record straight. However, Hepher is well aware that basement club Leeds are currently fighting for their Premiership lives and has warned the Exeter troops they will need to meet their rivals head on.
“I think we’ve got to beat their intensity,” said Hepher. “We’ve got to create that environment, that desperation to fight for our lives ourselves. “That’s what it’s been about all season. Okay, we’re in a different situation now, but it’s vital we’re able to recreate that.
“Anyone can do it when you’re in trouble or when you’re struggling, but it’s the true top professionals who can produce it week in, week out when there’s not such a threat behind them.”
Certainly the Chiefs will be hoping that last weekend’s setback at London Irish – where they went down 39-17 – has been put firmly to bed and that they can now focus on trying to record a Premiership double over Neil Back’s side, who they defeated 15-9 back in November.
As part of the plan, the visitors have made five changes to their line-up. A heavyweight pack, which totals in excess of 900kg, sees Chad Slade and James Phillips come into the side in place of James Hanks and Tom Johnson; whilst behind an equally big back division is bolstered with the inclusion of Junior Poluleuligaga, Bryan Rennie and Fijian powerhouse Nemani Nadolo.
Samoan Poluleuligaga comes in for his first Premiership start taking over at scrum-half from Haydn Thomas, whilst Rennie’s inclusion means a reshuffle behind with Sireli Naqelevuki switching to the left wing and Nadolo coming in on the right. Matt Jess and Nic Sestaret are the men who step aside on the flanks for the two Fijian internationals.
Despite the re-jig, Hepher is excited by the imposing Exeter line-up and insists his side will bring more to the party than just bulk.
“It’s exciting but they’re not just big guys, they can play as well,” said Hepher. “That’s the key thing. It’s something we’ve got to try and see whether it works for next year. The pitch isn’t that big, it’s not great for going around the outside, so we’ve got to try and create some holes and some momentum ourselves.
“We’ll look to do that, the guys are great professionals and they’ve worked very hard to get in the side.”
On the bench there is also a couple of changes with hooker Chris Whitehead and back Phil Dollman also included from the team that lost to the Exiles.
Hepher insisted performances put in by a number of players during Monday night’s 40-0 A League victory over London Irish had helped improve the selection chances of a number of those who had come into the side for Sunday.
At the same time, the coach said he was looking forward to seeing how Poluleuligaga would perform, particularly after an impressive display when he came on for Thomas at the Madejski Stadium a week ago.
“Junior’s been training very well over the last couple of months and has been pushing really hard,” said Hepher. “Haydn’s form has been excellent and it’s been tough for Junior, but his head’s never dropped, he’s kept working hard and he’s earned his chance. We’ve got options there and we’re really lucky to have two good scrum-halves in the match-day squad.”
Leeds, meanwhile will make a late call on skipper Marco Wentzel, who was ruled out of last week’s 15-12 defeat at Sale Sharks following a late fitness test on his injured calf. However, stand-in captain and England hooker Steve Thompson is definitely fit, having trained all week despite being taken off as a precaution at Edgeley Park with a foot problem.
Home coach Back, like Hepher, knows the importance of this latest match-up, but has praised Sunday’s visitors for the way they have tackled the Premiership in their first-ever season.
“Exeter are safe in the Premiership and can start building now for next season,” said Back. “I’ve been really impressed. Coming up from the Championship last year, they have recruited really well and were fully financed. They have taken their opportunities. They don’t play massively expansively, but they do the basics outstandingly well and have got good results on the back of that.
“They have a good kicker in Steenson, who has taken his opportunities well and led well. But he’s not quite in Charlie’s (Hodgson’s) shoes. Last week, Charlie showed his quality and had five opportunities and kicked five between the posts and that makes a difference when you have a quality international ‘ten’ in your team.”
EXETER CHIEFS TEAM TO FACE LEEDS CARNEGIE
15 Luke Arscott
14 Nemani Nadolo
13 Jason Shoemark
12 Bryan Rennie
11 Sireli Naqelevuki
10 Gareth Steenson
9 Junior Poluleuligaga
1 Brett Sturgess
2 Neil Clark
3 Chris Budgen
4 Tom Hayes (capt)
5 Chad Slade
6 James Phillips
7 James Scaysbrook
8 Richard Baxter
16 Chris Whitehead
17 Ben Moon
18 Hoani Tui
19 Dave Gannon
20 Tom Johnson
21 Haydn Thomas
22 Ignacio Mieres
23 Phil Dollman