By Mark Stevens
Rob Baxter says his Exeter Chiefs squad are ‘fully focused’ on the task ahead as they gear up for tomorrow’s Aviva Premiership trip to Worcester Warriors (3pm).
Fresh from a hard fought draw against table-toppers Wasps last Sunday, the Chiefs will be looking to consolidate their top three position by inflicting yet another league defeat on their hosts, who themselves warmed up for this latest clash by downing reigning champions Saracens on their own turf last time out.
In nine previous top flight meetings between Worcester and Exeter, it’s been a whitewash of victories for Devon’s finest. Another this weekend would not only take that record into double figures but, more importantly, ensure Baxter’s side keep up their pursuit of Wasps and Saracens at the summit of the table.
However, the Chiefs head coach knows all too well that the Warriors – particularly on home turf – will be no pushovers and has instilled into his players this week that they must perform from minute one at Sixways.
“It’s a big game for us and if we want to achieve anything at the end of the season, it’s what we do now that ultimately matters,” said Baxter. “We’ve had a good training week, we’ve got guys back up to speed into the Premiership after a month of action in Europe and the Anglo-Welsh, and we look in good shape.
“What we’ve talked about this week, however, is the importance of everyone being sharp and fully focused and that when we hit the pitch we do everything flat out. That is what we are good and it’s what tends to suit us. We have to make the game very attritional over the 80 minutes for every opposition that we play.
“There were times last week [against Wasps] when we perhaps over managed the game and that’s not great for us. We just need to focus on ourselves, get things right from the outset and really look to take the game to Worcester.”
Certainly the Chiefs will head to the Midlands with plenty of confidence, especially given the fact that for 40 minutes last weekend they played with 14 men. A first half yellow card for Mitch Lees caused initial woes, before fellow lock Jonny Hill was sent off early in the second period for a high tackle on Ashley Johnson.
That said, Baxter was proud of the way his team dealt with their numerical disadvantage against the Premiership’s leading lights.
“I was really pleased with the character and qualities we showed in that last half hour when we went down to 14 men,” he added. “Obviously we let them in straight after the red card to level the scoreboard up, but the next thing we were doing is putting Wasps under pressure and scoring points.
“If I’m honest, I was a little frustrated we didn’t hold on for the win in the end. However, three points from a five-try draw is a pretty good return, especially given the circumstances we found ourselves in To get that kind of return against a top side, it tends to show that you are getting a lot of things right.”
Worcester, though, will be no pushovers and buoyed by claiming the scalp of the champions a week ago, Baxter has warned of the threat they will pose to his side.
“They looked well organised and very comfortable with what they are doing,” said Baxter. “They had good energy, worked hard for one another, so it’s should be a fantastic challenge for us.
“What I like about the weekend is that both sides are fighting for something. Worcester are fighting to prove they can climb clear of the relegation zone and push forward as a club, while we are fighting to consolidate a place in the top four and be on course to be part of those big games at the end of the season.
“For me, that makes for a really good fixture, so it’s important that we prepare well and we show them respect. The only way you can do that, however is by preparing well – which we’ve done this week – and then going out and playing well.”
With Hill suspended for two weeks by the RFU, Baxter is forced into change in the second row. Into the side comes the vastly experienced Geoff Parling (pictured) alongside Lees, while Harry Williams is promoted from the bench to fill the tight-head spot in place of Greg Holmes and Jack Yeandle is also elevated to the starting line-up with Luke Cowan-Dickie (knee) missing out this week.
Behind, international duo Henry Slade and Michele Campagnaro – both of whom have been away on Six Nations duty in recent weeks – form a more than useful midfield pairing.
On the bench, Shaun Malton and Tomas Francis offer front-row back-up, Thomas Waldrom gets the nod over Tom Johnson, while Ian Whitten drops down to offer cover in the back division having done well in last weekend’s display against Wasps.
CHIEFS SIDE TO FACE WORCESTER WARRIORS
15 Phil Dollman
14 Olly Woodburn
13 Michele Campagnaro
12 Henry Slade
11 James Short
10 Gareth Steenson (capt)
9 Jack Maunder
1 Ben Moon
2 Jack Yeandle
3 Harry Williams
4 Mitch Lees
5 Geoff Parling
6 Dave Dennis
7 Don Armand
8 Sam Simmonds
16 Shaun Malton
17 Carl Rimmer
18 Tomas Francis
19 Sam Skinner
20 Thomas Waldrom
21 Stuart Townsend
22 Ian Whitten
23 Lachie Turner