Exeter Chiefs return to Aviva Premiership action on Saturday with head coach Rob Baxter hoping his side can pick up from where they left off a fortnight ago.
An enforced two-week break has meant the Chiefs have had the opportunity to recharge their batteries and nurse a few bumps and bruises ahead of this weekend’s testing trip to London Irish at the Madejski Stadium (3pm).
Exeter’s impressive 30-9 victory at home to Northampton Saints in their last league fixture ensured the Premiership newcomers finished their recent four-game block with three victories under their belt – their sole defeat coming against Westcountry rivals Bath in a tense encounter at Sandy Park.
That run of results, though, allowed Baxter’s side to notch up a plethora of points and heading into this weekend’s tussle, they find themselves just seven points adrift of fourth-placed Northampton and four off a potential Heineken Cup place.
Talk of Europe and final league placings, however, has been noted by those in and around Sandy Park, but the focus – as it has been all season – is simply on the next game. So, for the Chiefs that focus is their latest date with the Reading-based Exiles.
“We’ve avoided looking too far ahead so far. The nice thing is we’re out of the relegation dogfight so we can look at the few teams above us,” said Baxter. “There are a relatively small gap to those teams so every point you earn helps you climb up the table, that’s a nice reward for where we are now.
“We’re not getting too carried away. If results come and points come and we climb the table – fantastic. If not, we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing now to improve and learn as a team and as individuals.”
All season the Chiefs have been keen to develop both on and off the field and when they take to the field this weekend they will be keen to demonstrate just how far they have come since the sides last met back in October. Irish are one of just three league sides to have triumphed in Devon this term and came away that day with a 12-9.
They have, however, struggled to hit top form since and a record of five wins from 19 games is hardly the kind of stats head coach Toby Booth is happy to write home about. The Chiefs, on the other hand, have flourished recently and Baxter has been left to bemoan slightly the recent two-week break.
“We would have liked to have kept on rolling through, but that’s not how it works in the Premiership. You’ve got to get used to these experiences,” said Baxter. “We feel we were on quite good form before the break, so our challenge is to continue that form. I think London Irish would have liked to have been playing a bit better, so for them the break is a chance to re-ignite their season.
“We’ll only know tomorrow if we’ve managed the last three weeks well. That’s what you do in your first season in the Premiership: You learn from these things, and it may well be that what we’ve done in the last three weeks was good and we perform well, it may be that we have done a couple of things wrong.”
Although victorious against the Saints, Baxter has opted to change his winning formula by making three changes for this latest encounter. The sole change in the pack sees James Hanks return after injury in place of Chad Slade, who drops to the bench; whilst in the back division Jason Shoemark and Matt Jess are both recalled at the expense of Phil Dollman and Fijian powerhouse Nemani Nadolo.
For the long-serving Hanks the Irish game, which the host clubs are using to celebrate the recently staged St Patrick’s Day, is a fixture he is keen to be involved with. However, he knows it will be a real battle for him and his team-mates.
“It’s going to be a pretty tough game,” the 26-year-old said. “It looks like they’ve sold a lot of tickets, but that’s the kind of challenge we’re looking forward to.
“These are the kind of games you want to be involved in, with 20,000 people in a fantastic stadium. They’ve got a really strong squad but have had a tough season in the Heineken Cup and with international call-ups, but they’re looking to bounce back and move on in the next six games. They’re still in the mix as well, I don’t think there’s anyone out of the top six who are out of it.”
A win for the Chiefs in Reading will allow the visitors to leapfrog their rivals in the current standings, but Hanks is taking nothing for granted as the Chiefs prepare to head up the motorways.
That has left Exeter in a position to leapfrog the Exiles if they record an away win, but Hanks is taking nothing for granted.
“I think they’re very strong throughout the team, they’ve got international players across the park, so we’re going to have to be right on top of our game,” he said. “It’s possible that we could go above them but we’ve just got to focus in putting in a good performance, and if we do that we could get a result.
“Confidence has been building slowly throughout the season, but we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. We know our game starts with ourselves, we’ve got to get our basics right and work very hard for each other.”
EXETER CHIEFS TEAM TO FACE LONDON IRISH
15 Luke Arscott
14 Matt Jess
13 Jason Shoemark
12 Sireli Naqelevuki
11 Nic Sestaret
10 Gareth Steenson
9 Haydn Thomas
1 Brett Sturgess
2 Neil Clark
3 Chris Budgen
4 Tom Hayes (capt)
5 James Hanks
6 Tom Johnson
7 James Scaysbrook
8 Richard Baxter
16 Simon Alcott
17 Ben Moon
18 Hoani Tui
19 Chad Slade
20 James Phillips
21 Junior Poluleuligaga
22 Nemani Nadolo
23 Ignacio Mieres