What has happened in the past and what the future holds is of little concern to Exeter Chiefs Director of Rugby, Rob Baxter, ahead of today’s Gallagher Premiership encounter with London Irish at Sandy Park (5pm), writes Mark Stevens.
Instead, the Chiefs leader is fully focused on the ‘here and now’ as his side look to address a three-game losing streak against the visiting Exiles.
Losses to Saracens, Gloucester and Northampton Saints have hampered the Devonians in recent weeks, but Baxter is hopeful a return to home comforts this weekend can provide the necessary lift for his squad ahead of this Round 10 encounter.
“Losing again last week was disappointing, particularly given the effort and the fight that went into the game from the guys,” he said. “At the same time, watching the likes of Josh Hodge, Dan John, Will Becconsall when he came on, it felt exciting to see them on the field.
“Right now, there is some great stuff happening with opportunities for those guys, but at the same time we’re going to have take some pain because everything is not going to be smooth.
“If guys could come in and play great rugby from day one, they’ll probably be in an International squad by day two. That’s the reality of that kind of player you are talking about. People have probably forgotten some of the pain we went through with the likes of Henry Slade, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jack Nowell and Sam Simmonds, because it feels like it didn’t really happen.
“I can tell you, it did happen. If you look at last week’s game, we get ourselves back in front, but then we make a crucial kick error from a young player and it puts us back under pressure and turns the table against us. We also made a couple of discipline errors, which we probably didn’t need to do, so there are learns for us.
“On the whole though, we went to Northampton with a structured game plan, one which we stuck to for a large part of the game, and we came up just short in the end. In other seasons we have been to Northampton away and been pleased to get a losing bonus point. That in itself shows how far we have come that we’re disappointed when we get that result now.”
Indeed, it’s those high standards over the years which have driven the Chiefs to the very pinnacle of the English and European game. Baxter knows that to reach those heights, it takes a team effort, one in which everyone is pulling in the same direction.
“We got a losing bonus point last week, but what I liked most was our willingness to stay in the fight throughout,” added Baxter. “For me, I’m more disappointed that we didn’t get anything from the games at Sale and at Gloucester because we were in the fight in those games enough, but we weren’t able to do it for the whole game. Had we been there or thereabouts, we could easily have got more from those games.
“And it’s those little learns that this new group of players have to take on for us to move forward as a group. I’ve said this a few times now, we can’t keep thinking it’s just going to roll on being the same each year, when so many things change. By that I mean, the player group changes, the ages of your players change, things are changing all the time. What we have to do is build a new group which has it’s own aims and goals - and which wants to get to finals and have players who want to become international players.
“If players are that driven, they’ll be the players who drive the team for the next five, six, seven years, so we have to embrace that and help them develop as much as we can, as soon as we can.”
Standing in the way of the Chiefs tomorrow, however, will be an Irish side who - despite their lowly position in the current standings - offer a creditable threat, both in attack and defence. Indeed, the Londoners did the double over their hosts last season and Baxter is acutely aware of the threat they pose/
“The loss home here last season was probably one of the low points of our season,” added the Chiefs coach. “It was almost like the senior guys in the squad said out loud ‘this is not good enough’ and we had a big upturn from that point. It was almost like the green shoots of us heading back the right way started after that game.
“Now, I want us to go out there and show that fight, that desire and that overall willingness to just work hard hard. We’re at home, so we should demand a big emotional performance here at Sandy Park. I don’t care too much about what has happened previously or what’s down the line, I want us to focus on the here and now and get that all in place.”
Team news for the Chiefs sees Baxter again shorn of a plethora of frontline stars due to injuries and international call-ups. Two new additions to the casualty list came from last Friday’s game with Jack Yeandle ruled out with concussion and Ian Whitten sidelined with a shoulder injury.
Into the starting line come Jack Innard for Yeandle, whilst Sean O’Brien is poised for a first-ever Premiership start in place of Whitten. The other changes in personnel see Alec Hepburn start at loosehead, while Welshman Dafydd Jenkins come into the second-row, where he will also skipper the side from.
On the bench, recent signing from Wasps, utility back Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, gets his first involvement with the Chiefs, as does former club-mate and hooker, Dan Frost.