Exeter head coach Rob Baxter admits a return to home comforts is just the tonic the Chiefs need after suffering from a recent bout of travel sickness.
Three successive defeats on the road at London Irish, Leeds Carnegie and Bath – plus an enforced two-week break for Cup competitions – means it is some six weeks since Devon’s finest overcame Northampton Saints 30-9 at Sandy Park. This weekend, however, they are back on familiar territory looking to get their Aviva Premiership campaign firmly back on the straight and narrow, whilst at the same time trying to complete a league double over visiting Saracens.
Exeter’s 23-9 triumph at Vicarage Road back in October remains one of the club’s main highlights in the top flight this term – and went some way to dispelling the theory of some media pundits that the club would be relegated at the first time of asking. Since then the Chiefs have gone on to impress many with their on-field displays and currently sit 16 points clear of bottom club Newcastle Falcons with just three games of the season to play.
Sadly, though, Baxter and his troops cannot quite celebrate a magnificent first season in the Premiership just yet as an administrative error in the registration of Fijian winger Nemani Nadolo has meant the club are currently waiting to see if they are to be punished by the Rugby Football Union for fielding three overseas players in a match-day squad.
Baxter revealed this week he had already apologised to his players for matters which have gone on off the field. “It has been frustrating. We have worked very hard this season and I’ve already spoken to the players to apologise to them,” admitted Baxter. “Anything that means that points we have worked and fought hard for could get taken away from the club is obviously very frustrating for them. It’s nothing to do with the players at all – they’ve worked extremely hard and done everything we’ve asked them to do. You’ve got to kind of say that behind the scenes we’ve let them down a little bit.
“If you think that you play and work hard and you’ve got the club in a position where they’re safe and then someone comes along and says you might be getting a points deduction but we don’t quite know how much it’ll be, that’s obviously going to cause a small distraction. But I think they’re a pretty level-headed bunch and they know we’re in it all together, so we’re just going to push through and play as well until the end of the season as we can.”
Instead the focus of Baxter and his players this week has not been on any potential penalties, but on that of trying to sink second-placed Saracens, who will arrive in the Westcountry armed with an array of international talent at their disposal.
Despite recent form, Exeter’s leader is confident that work done on the training field this week, as well as a return to Sandy Park can help his side rediscover their magic.
“Away games in the Premiership are tough, as has been proved by our last three fixtures. So to go away to Saracens, who at the time were doing very well in the league, and win as well as we did was obviously a good thing,” Baxter said.
“Sometimes you watch a team perform and you can see they are exactly where they need to be, and that happened that day. We finished our opportunities exceptionally well and were very clinical.
“Something we have maybe forfeited over the last few weeks is that we’ve probably lacked that tight, clinical edge to our game. That experience you need to finish every opportunity is probably the one thing we haven’t got, but that is coming bit by bit. The amount of opportunities we created last week but didn’t finish is disappointing, but I’d be much more worried if those opportunities weren’t there. We always look like we can score points and for us it is just about finishing them off.”
Saracens, however, will be a tough nut to crack and having shown that they can function despite the exit of former Director of Rugby Brendan Venter, they make their first trip to Sandy Park having won their last seven fixtures on the spin.
Baxter is aware of the threat posed by the visitors, stating: “I think the key with Saracens is they are a very good team. They’ve got good individuals but their big strength is that, as a team, they bring a lot. I think if you were to ask me what their best quality was, I’d have to say that it is that they play for each other and they play together – that makes any team a good team.”
Team news ahead of the game for the Chiefs is that they make one change to their starting line-up. Lock James Hanks has recovered from the shoulder injury which has sidelined him for the past two weeks and comes back into the second row in place of Samoan international Chad Slade, who drops to the bench at the expense of Dave Gannon.
The other change in personnel see prop Chris Budgen return to the match-day 23 after missing out at Bath last week, Argentine forward Ignacio Elosu is the man to step aside.
CHIEFS TEAM TO FACE SARACENS
15 Luke Arscott
14 Matt Jess
13 Jason Shoemark
12 Sireli Naqelevuki
11 Nic Sestaret
10 Gareth Steenson
9 Junior Poluleuligaga
1 Brett Sturgess
2 Neil Clark
3 Hoani Tui
4 Tom Hayes (capt)
5 James Hanks
6 Tom Johnson
7 James Scaysbrook
8 Richard Baxter
16 Chris Whitehead
17 Ben Moon
18 Chris Budgen
19 Chad Slade
20 James Phillips
21 Garrick Cowley
22 Phil Dollman
23 Ignacio Mieres