By Mark Stevens
Stuart Townsend is hopeful Exeter Chiefs can maintain their unbeaten streak in the Aviva Premiership when they play host to Northampton Saints at a packed out Sandy Park on Saturday (3pm).
Rob Baxter’s side have not tasted defeat in the top flight since late October, producing an impressive and unbeaten 13-game run that has lifted them to second in the standings – and with it a guaranteed place in next month’s end of season play-offs.
This weekend, however, vital league points are up for grabs in the quest to secure home advantage in the play-offs and scrum-half Townsend is looking to play his part for the Devon club in their penultimate fixture of the scheduled season.
“It’s a big end to the season for us,” said the 21-year-old. “We’ve got Northampton this weekend, at home, so we’re really excited to get out there and put in a big performance.
“It’s in our own hands whether we get a home semi-final or not, so we’re just focusing week on week and looking to push through and see where it takes us.”
Having had over a week to recharge the batteries following their 39-26 win at Harlequins last time out, Townsend is one of four changes the Chiefs have made to their back division for the visit of the Saints.
Townsend takes over in the number nine jersey from the Jack Maunder and forms a new-look half-back pairing with Gareth Steenson, who is also back in the fold with Henry Slade also nursing an injury following the Quins’ success.
Inside of Steenson, fellow Irishman Ian Whitten comes into the centre in place of Michele Campagnaro, while on the wing Jack Nowell – fresh from the news that he will tour New Zealand with the British & Irish Lions this summer – is given the nod ahead of leading try-scorer James Short.
Reflecting on Exeter’s triumph at The Stoop last time out, Townsend said: “It was a great performance and a great win up at Harlequins, but now we have to back it up again this week. We’ve talked this week about our qualities and what we need to bring to the game, but now have to do the same against Northampton.
“Like with any game there are things we need to improve on, but we’ve used the break to look at a few things and hopefully we’ll go well at the weekend. Northampton, we know, will be a very tough test. They’ve had some close losses in the last weeks, but the key for us is to focus on ourselves and take our game to them.”
In what has been a breakthrough season for Townsend at the Chiefs, he started the campaign down in Cornwall with the Pirates, but now finds himself front and centre, helping to spearhead Exeter’s attacking game.
“It’s been weird in a way,” he said. “I started the year down at the Pirates, but then we got a few injuries and I was called back. Since then, I’ve been given my chance in a lot of big games and I feel I’m really growing into the role. Hopefully, I can even more games moving forward.”
Although Maunder is sidelined, the sight of Will Chudley back in the match-day squad, Martin Roberts on the books, plus the return to light training of Dave Lewis this week, means the Chiefs stock at scrum-half is starting to look a lot more favourable at a key stage of the season.
“It’s great to have Chudders back in the squad,” added Townsend. “Obviously him and Dave have been injured and it’s meant me and Jack have had a lot of game time, but we’re a close group, we work well together and we’re all looking to do our bit. Having competition for places brings the best out of people, so we’re all relishing these final weeks of the season.”