Chiefs side to face Sale Sharks
ob Baxter believes the fight for a spot in this season’s Gallagher Premiership play-offs will be intense, such is the closeness of the current standings and the competitiveness of the division.
On Sunday, Baxter’s Exeter Chiefs side will be looking to make up ground on second-placed visitors Sale Sharks at Sandy Park (1pm). The Devonians dropped out of the top four places a week ago - due to their bye week - and are now fully focused on reclaiming as high a play-off berth as possible between now and the end of the regular season.
With games set to come thick and fast, Baxter acknowledged this week the task facing his - and that of his rivals - with just seven games remaining.
“That seven games will go in the blink of an eye,” he said. “Also, with the way the table is, every week is going to be a standalone fixture for sides. This Sunday’s game is exciting, not just because it’s a good match-up between two top sides, but if we can get a result against Sale, then back up our bye week, then we start to close the gap on them and that fight for a top four spot.
“When you look at things, you can’t go for one without the other. Equally, every other club will be thinking the same, so all of us have to be ambitious enough to get up the table as far as we can, simply because that will give you the best chance of being in the top four.”
Without a game last weekend, the Chiefs return to action, ironically, against a Sharks side who they faced a fortnight ago in the Premiership Rugby Cup semi-final. Exeter won on that occasion, 46-3, but Baxter expects the fired-up Mancunians to pose a much more forceful threat in this latest match-up.
“The one thing history shows, doubling up performances against the same opposition is always difficult,” said Baxter. “The whole psychology around it is tough. That said, not too many of our boys played two weeks ago and it will be the same for them. Of course, there will be one or two on both sides who did and the Sale ones will be hugely motivated not to let the same thing happen again. What we have to do is make sure our motivation is greater than them.”
That Cup loss was followed up last weekend with another away-day defeat for the Sharks, who having lost Manu Tuilagi to a red card early in the contest, went down 38-34 at Northampton Saints.
As they have done a number of times this season, the Sharks flew out of the traps establishing a healthy 19-0 lead inside the opening quarter of the game at Franklin’s Gardens. This week, Baxter has outlined to his squad the early that Sale will pose and has warned his side to be on their guard from the outset.
“The two key things that stick out when you look at Sale are 1) they have shown real consistency across the season to get into that top two and 2) they’ve also started games very well. It’s almost scary how they’ve done that and come out of the blocks like they have,” said the Chiefs Director of Rugby.
“What we have to do is make sure we don’t lose the game in that opening period and at least match - or even come over the top of them - in that time. There will be times later in the game where they will look to get a dominance, but equally they will have periods when they ship scores and the game gets away from them. For us, it’s making sure we stay in the fight for that full 80 minutes.”
Although shy of five players on Six Nations duty this weekend, the Chiefs will be buoyed by the return to the starting line-up of South African powerhouse Jacques Vermeulen. The all-action, back-row forward hasn’t played since November, but returns in a home pack that also includes starting spots for Jack Dunne and Sam Simmonds. Behind the scrum, the back division - which includes new dad and captain, Jack Nowell - remains unchanged from that which defeated Gloucester in the Premiership earlier this month.
On the bench, scrum-half Jack Maunder will make his 100th Premiership appearance if called upon, whilst there are also inclusions for Jack Yeandle, Danny Southworth, Tom Hendrickson and recent signing Mike Williams, who made his Chiefs debut in the recent semi-final against the Sharks.