Chiefs side to face La Rochelle

Chiefs side to face La Rochelle

Exeter Chiefs Director of Rugby, Rob Baxter, has told his squad that will have to ‘dig deep’ if they are to make it to a second Heineken Champions Cup final.

The 2020 winners head to France tomorrow to tackle reigning champions La Rochelle in what will be a mouth-watering last four showdown at the Matmut Stadium in Bordeaux (3pm UK time).

But, just like the year they won it, the Chiefs have collectively combined as one this season to produce arguably their best form in Europe’s top club competition. Baxter and his team have already seen off some notable scalps, including French sides Castres and Montpellier, as well as the much-talked about DHL Stormers in the quarter-final.

Unlike their double-winning campaign of a few years’ ago, the Devonians will have a small legion of supporters in their corner. With a capacity crowd expect at the Matmut, many of whom will be backing Ronan O’Gara’s men, the Chiefs will be looking to emulate their semi-final showing last time, when they downed a star-studded Toulouse outfit.

“The prep is very much the same,” said Baxter. “Back then, Toulouse were a massive French club, going well and with lots of big name players in their side. For us, going away this weekend, I think it will be nice, Going to a different stadium, one which will be sold-out, it’s going to be an incredible atmosphere over there.

“No one who is going to be there is not going to say it was an incredible experience afterwards. What we have to do, however, is make it an experience that we really want it to be. That’s going to take a bit of doing, we’re going to have to dig deep, but that’s what great games should be like.

“I remember that Toulouse game - and what was incredible about it - was in many ways it’s still one of the best-ever performances I’ve seen from an Exeter Chiefs side. It had everything, it had them throwing everything at us with world class players and then us breaking them on our own bodies. The lads just stood there and literally fought for every inch.

“We refused to concede a try, I think we conceded a couple of penalties early in the first half, but we got through a tough patch by working extremely hard and then at the end of the first half, we started to take charge with a couple of tries. We started to expand on that in the second half and it really was one of those special occasions and that’s what we have to work on when we face La Rochelle on Sunday, just because we will need a similar level of performance to overcome them.”

Certainly, it’s been a vibrant and buoyant build-up from the Chiefs this week and Baxter’s cause will be aided by the return of a number of key names for the game. Jack Nowell has overcome a knee injury to skipper the side, whilst Scott Sio, Jonny Gray and Jacques Vermeulen all return to the pack having missed last weekend’s Premiership victory over the Bristol Bears.

Asked by the media if he was surprised to see his side battling it out with Europe’s finest, Baxter replied: “As I just said, the way we have played through Europe this season, I have to say ‘no’.

“From the first game, right up until their Stormers game, you have to say no because our level of performances have been very good. Even with some tough circumstances away to the Bulls in South Africa, we were actually a little disappointed with our performance there. We felt there was certainly more in the game for us, although we didn’t exceptionally well at the end to get the bonus point which, as it turned out, was very important for us.

“What we have to remember that although it has been a frustrating and inconsistent season for us at times, we haven’t been like that in Europe and some of our poor performances have happened around the European games, simply because we’ve put emotionally a lot into this campaign. The key for us now is that we don’t let ourselves down as we get to this big games and we show the best of ourselves.”

With just La Rochelle standing in the way of a potential Dublin final date against either Leinster or Toulouse, the fact Baxter has a near full-strength squad available to him could be paramount to Exeter’s hopes of progressing.

Indeed, with a number of those on duty set to depart at the end of the season, what better way would it be for some of the club’s all-time greats to bow out on the highest of highs.

“The narrative of this second half of the season has been all about those players who are leaving,” added Baxter. “But what people forget are they are still here at the moment!

“Sam Simmonds is still here, Joe Simmonds is still here, Stuart Hogg, Jack Nowell, Dave Ewers, Jannes Kirsten, they are all still here and playing. They have not gone and they are still capable of getting on the pitch and playing like international quality players. That’s got to be the job and this week is all about bringing that together.

“We have still got very good players staying with us. Olly Woodburn has been our player of the season, Henry Slade, Scott Sio, Jonny Gray, guys like that, they are still here and will be on that pitch. People sometimes forget we still have a great group of players who, if they all come together, they all see it as one, it’s going to be a very good game of rugby.”

And it’s not just the 23 at the Chiefs who have been doing their best, Baxter has praised the entire squad in how they have helped ensure preparations are tip-top for the weekend.

“Training has been great,” he added. “And we have asked a lot of the non-23 this week, asked a lot of them to get their prep bang on. We really have had to use the whole squad to get some top-line prep done.

“What more can you want as a player or as a coach than getting on the plane in Exeter on Saturday, heading to a fantastic city and a sold-out stadium. It’s kind of what more do you want? You should be desperate to play in games and occasions like this.”

For those unable to go to Bordeaux, Sandy Park will be screening the game live inside the building following Sunday's Allianz Cup Final involving Exeter Chiefs Women and Saracens Women (1pm).


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