Rob Baxter has warned his Exeter Chiefs side to prepare for battle ahead of tonight’s Westcountry derby with Bristol in Round Four of this season’s Aviva Premiership (7:45pm).
Going head to head for the first time since the Chiefs pipped their rivals to the post in the inaugural RFU Championship Play-Off final six years ago, there appears to be plenty at stake as the two ready themselves to lock horns at Ashton Gate.
Baxter is well aware of what has transpired at both clubs in the years that have passed since that wet and wild night at the Memorial Stadium, but it’s present day matters which totally dominate his thoughts going into this latest meeting.
“Obviously it was a fantastic couple of games against Bristol, but the truth is it wasn’t just that one off occasion that got us into the Premiership,” said the Exeter leader. “It was a big season all round for us and the players at that time worked extremely hard to get us to that point.
“There were time when we took some stick when we lost a couple of games – and whilst you never want to lose any games, we knew there were reasons behind that and we dealt with it.
“Inwardly we approached the whole format really well and it culminated in us building performances right through to the final at Bristol. As I said, all the guys involved should be immensely proud of what they achieved, but the foundations of it all were put in place not just throughout that season, but also in the years before.
“Since that night we have kept moving forward and whilst we don’t tend to harp back to it too much, I am aware that the older players – and myself – have talked about it as being one of the most important games in our history to date as it was the game that got us into the Premiership.”
Baxter continued: “However, do we look back at it now and say it was down to the defining level of performance? You’d have to say ‘no’ because we have had to play a lot better since then to achieve what we have achieved.
“Yes, it was a nice stepping stone along the way for us, but as a club we have had to move on considerably since then and I know we will have to play considerably better than we did that night to get anything from Friday’s game.”
Certainly the Chiefs have demonstrated since their arrival in English rugby’s top division that having strong foundations in place has been key to their own growth and development – and having reached last season’s final, losing to Saracens at Twickenham, that expectation levels have altered again this term.
And that is why Baxter insists it would be wrong to compare the Chiefs of 2010 coming into the Premiership to that of Bristol returning in 2016.
“It’s like chalk and cheese,” he said. “If you look at it, Bristol have been a Premiership side in the past and they have featured in the top league a lot longer than we have. They have got a foundation, a base and a history at this level. How they got back into the Premiership is a lot different to how we had to do it, so it’s wrong to compare the two of us.
“That said, your first season is always tough as we found out. However, it’s tough three seasons in and it’s just as tough seven or eight seasons in like we are now. If you look at our start, we’re one win in three, so it’s never easy.
“If you ask me about Bristol, I think they are going alright. I’m sure they felt unlucky to lose that first game against Harlequins and then like us they went to Wasps last week and came up against a team that are bang on form.
“Therefore it’s really important we focus on ourselves and what we want to achieve and not got down the line of Bristol lost last week, it’s their first season back in the Premiership, and almost don’t start to expect things that have no foundation.
“The things that have foundation is how we turn up on Friday and that’s been our big message this week. We’ve not talked about the past or where they stand, let’s make sure we focus on the things that make us good.”
As always much of that will be about the hard working ethos of the Devonians and having defeated Harlequins 36-25 last weekend, Baxter is keen for his team to build on that success with an equally strong performance tonight.
“Friday will be a big game because it’s against our nearest Premiership rivals,” he continued. “The thing I keep pushing with the lads is that it’s a big Premiership game of rugby and because it’s a Premiership game it’s a big game. Anytime you win in this league you have done well, whether it’s home or away, and that’s the important thing to drive home.
“Week by week we have to go onto the field and play in a way that merits something out of the game for us. As I’ve said to the players, they have to be prepared to go to Bristol and work extremely hard. If the mindset for them is they are disappointed if they don’t score tries, they are already getting it wrong.
“What they should be disappointed about is if they turn up and don’t work very hard, that’s what I am expecting of them. I’m not overly bothered about the style of play or points on the board, I want to see players who want to turn up and play a big, tough game of rugby.”
Although victorious last time out, Baxter has tweaked his winning formula by bringing in Alec Hepburn, Mitch Lees and Dave Dennis to his pack of forwards in place of Ben Moon, Geoff Parling and the injured Don Armand, while behind Sam Hill is promoted from the bench at the expense of Ollie Devoto.
On the bench, Kai Horstmann fills the void left by Dennis, who is making his first start for the club following his summer move from the NSW Waratahs, while Harry Williams is back-up at tight-head following Tomas Francis’ two-week suspension.
15 Lachie Turner
14 Olly Woodburn
13 Henry Slade
12 Sam Hill
11 Ian Whitten
10 Gareth Steenson (capt)
9 Will Chudley
1 Alec Hepburn
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Greg Holmes
4 Mitch Lees
5 Damian Welch
6 Dave Dennis
7 Julian Salvi
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Jack Yeandle
17 Ben Moon
18 Harry Williams
19 Geoff Parling
20 Kai Horstmann
21 Dave Lewis
22 Ollie Devoto
23 James Short