Exeter Chiefs Director of Rugby, Rob Baxter, has challenged his side to ‘make things happen’ ahead of their Heineken Champions Cup semi-final against Toulouse at Sandy Park tomorrow (3:30pm).
In what will be the Devon club’s first-ever semi-final at this level – against opposition they have never faced before – the stage is set for the Chiefs to break new ground and firmly underline their emergence as one of European Rugby’s rising club forces.
In a profitable campaign which started last November with a bonus point victory at La Rochelle and continued with success over the likes of Sale Sharks, Glasgow Warriors and, only last week, Northampton Saints in the quarter-finals, Baxter acknowledges this latest fixture will provide the acid test for his team.
“There is a genuine understanding amongst the players that it cannot be relief at being in a semi-final, it has to be a challenge,” he said. “It does not feel that we were relieved to get past Northampton (in the quarter-finals) and reach the semi-finals. We were relieved to get past them for different reasons, namely because we were favourites.
“There is no feeling in this club that that is enough and that the players are wearing big smiles on their faces having won the lottery. There is a feeling there is still a job to be done.
“Yes, we ticked a few boxes last week in terms of dealing with the various bits of emotional baggage that came with that game. By that I mean, us as coaches and players were reading four or five weeks ago that Northampton had come out of lockdown not in the same form as they had entered it – and that we were bang on form and doing very well.
“That quarter-final tie had been locked in for a long time and Northampton threw absolutely everything into it physically and they broke up parts of our game at times. You have to give them full credit for what they did, but at the same time you have to give our guys a lot of credit for how they coped and overcame the challenges in the game.
“I thought the hard work we put in defence, particularly in the first half, when Northampton really came at us, was fantastic. The way we defended and the work we did around our kick-chase, Northampton had to work supremely hard to get their points and, ultimately, that created over the 80 minutes a lot of fatigue on their part. That in turn allowed us later on in the game to capitalise on that and get the tries which allowed us to stretch clear come the end.”
With the pressure of the Saints clash now banished to the history books, it’s onto tomorrow’s tussle, a fixture Baxter says will bring about new challenges for both him and his players.
“This is a last four game in Europe, so whoever is one of the four teams is going to be pretty good,” he added. “For us, though, I think this is the kind of challenge we’ve been waiting for. That’s no disrespect to anybody else, but the players came back in great physical condition from lockdown and ready to go.
“As a group, they’ve thrown a huge amount of energy into game with the anticipation and knowledge that there is something special to play for on the horizon. Therefore, those games were really worth going after, because it’s allowed to be where we need in the Premiership and also in Europe. Now, we have to harness all of that energy and desire in the right way to give us the best chance to put in the best level of performance at the weekend.”
With Sandy Park again absent of their normal, raucous crowd, the Chiefs will once more have to generate their own on-field energy against the star-studded French outfit.
“The key thing this week is that we don’t get too excited about the game too quickly,” explained Baxter. “For a game like this, you have to expend a huge amount of emotional energy, but not in the build-up. Our aim has to be to have those emotional batteries full for kick-off, then release it all from the outset.”
Standing in the way of a potential first European final, however, are four-time winners Toulouse who, like the Chiefs, have produced an unblemished record to get to this stage of the competition.
Last weekend’s 35-8 victory over Ulster showcased their attacking threat, which Baxter knows will need to be quelled from the outset tomorrow.
“It’s important not to state the obvious,” said Baxter. “Dupont is a clear threat, as is Cheslin Kolbe. They’ve also got a big midfield strike threat, the pack of forwards are big and can play a power game, so as much as you can look at their threats, the more important thing from our perspective is that we find things in the game for ourselves and look to exploit them.”
Not surprisingly, Baxter sticks with a large nucleus of last weekend’s victorious side. The sole change to the starting line-up sees Scottish international come in for Jacques Vermeulen, while on the bench Dave Dennis and Don Armand are included with Jannes Kirsten the man to make way.
CHIEFS SIDE TO FACE TOULOUSE
15 Stuart Hogg
14 Jack Nowell
13 Henry Slade
12 Ian Whitten
11 Tom O’Flaherty
10 Joe Simmonds (capt)
9 Jack Maunder
1 Alec Hepburn
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Harry Williams
4 Jonny Gray
5 Jonny Hill
6 Dave Ewers
7 Sam Skinner
8 Sam Simmonds
16 Jack Yeandle
17 Ben Moon
18 Tomas Francis
19 Dave Dennis
20 Don Armand
21 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne
22 Gareth Steenson
23 Ollie Devoto