Exeter Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter believes his side will have to come out of the blocks firing when they tackle Gloucester in tomorrow’s Aviva Premiership clash at Kingsholm (3pm).
With just one league victory on the road so far this season – that came against Saracens back in late October – the Chiefs will make the relatively short trek up the M5 looking to complete their first-ever double in English rugby’s top flight.
Baxter’s troops stunned the rugby fraternity back in September when they kicked-off their Premiership adventure by sinking the Cherry & Whites 22-10 on the opening day of the season at Sandy Park.
To many outsiders it seemed a shock result, but to those inside the Chiefs camp it was far from that and just reward for the efforts put in during a demanding pre-season programme.
Gareth Steenson was Exeter’s chief tormentor on that occasion and tomorrow he returns to the Exeter starting XV for his first start since limping out of the action against London Irish in October.
Now fully recovered following knee ligament damage, he is the sole change Baxter has made to the side which went down 22-15 at home to Leicester Tigers last Saturday. The Irishman takes over at No.10 from Ryan Davis, who drops to the bench.
Baxter admitted the decision to drop Davis, who has landed 111 points in all competitions this season, was a “tough decision” but he expects both men to play key roles during the remainder of the season.
With the line-up sorted, Baxter wants his side to attack from the outset against Gloucester this weekend. He said: “The away games we feel we’ve under performed in are the ones we haven’t really started. At Saracens [where Exeter won 23-9] we got out of the blocks and that made a massive difference.
“At Northampton we didn’t get out of the blocks, but played well in the second half and it was very similar at Wasps – we let the game get away from us but then nearly got a losing bonus point.
“I think the key for us is to perform well from the start. As I said to the guys, we’re supposed to enjoy these experiences; that’s what’s brought the best out of us so far. If we get off the bus and we perform for 80 minutes we know we are a competitive side, we know we can be in games after 80 minutes and it would be nice to be in the shake-up at the end.”
Saturday’s clash also sees a Kingsholm return for the likes of Haydn Thomas, Mark Foster and Baxter himself. All are former players with the Exeter coach having spent one season at the club.
Like many, Baxter is looking forward to this latest away-day, adding: “It’s one of those fixtures that when you first get into the Premiership you look down the list for. I think we’ve got to look at it as a real challenge and something to really motivate us.
“Obviously, beating Gloucester in the first game of the season and them losing last week creates an interesting situation, we’re very aware they’re going to be very committed to winning the game and they don’t lose many at Kingsholm.
“It’s a really good challenge but I’ve always said we need challenges to improve us as a side and improve us as a group of players. Teams haven’t gone there and won, can we do it? We’ve got to show a lot of character and composure to do it.”
Gloucester are notoriously strong on home soil, but they head into the game on the back of a league loss at Leeds Carnegie and a Amlin Challenge Cup defeat at home to La Rochelle. The French side’s victory meant they were the first side in 13 months to win at Kingsholm, so the Chiefs are expecting some kind of backlash to recent setbacks.
EXETER CHIEFS TEAM TO FACE GLOUCESTER
15 Luke Arscott
14 Mark Foster
13 Jason Shoemark
12 Sereli Naqelevuki
11 Nic Sestaret
10 Gareth Steenson
9 Haydn Thomas
1 Brett Sturgess
2 Chris Whitehead
3 Hoani Tui
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 Chad Slade
20 Dave Ewers
21 Junior Poluleuligaga
22 Ryan Davis
23 Phil Dollman