WITH four wins under their belts and maximum points from fixtures so far, Exeter Chiefs go into their final pool match of this season’s Premiership Rugby Cup tomorrow (2pm) looking to round out on a high, writes Jack Lewis.
However, with a trip to the Recreation Ground to face a strong Bath outfit on the cards, this promises to be the Chiefs' sternest test of the season so far, and a good indication of where this squad are with the Gallagher Premiership kicking off in just a week’s time.
Rob Baxter and his coaches have rotated their team throughout the pool stages, giving opportunities to players across the squad as they look to solidify their strongest side to compete across the season.
For head coach Ali Hepher, things are building nicely, and he championed the way that this squad have bought into the aims for the season and the effort that his players are putting in to improve every week.
"The pleasing thing is how the lads are coming together, we obviously changed up the team for last weekend and it was really pleasing how those guys understood what we were trying to do and jumped in.
"Overall how we’ve progressed, and how we’ve developed our game through the last four or five weeks has been excellent and the attitudes of the guys has been top notch.”
Hepher is under no illusions as to the challenge that awaits the Chiefs up the M5, and after suffering a tough loss at the Rec in the league last season, the focus is firmly on the fixture this Saturday despite the lure of a Premiership opener against Saracens on October 14.
"We’ve picked a team for Bath, the priority is to keep the momentum that we’ve got and to pick a side that we believe is capable of winning this game and hopefully therefore preparing well for what is going to be an exciting Premiership season.
"They’ve got a lot of quality right the way through the team, set piece is a real factor for them and they have a system and a control from nine with Ben Spencer that they can work their way around the field. They do play space really well but they take limited risk from inside their own half.”
It is a strong Chiefs team that will be travelling up to face the West Country rivals, with several big names returning following rest and rotation against London Scottish.
The international centre pairing of Joe Hawkins and Henry Slade are back in the starting line-up, whilst Josh Hodge returns at full-back. The Chiefs have weaponised their kicking game, and with play makers across the back-line, it is sure to be something that will challenge the Bath defences.
The speed and power of Immanuel Feyi-Waboso gets another opportunity on the wing to show what he can do, whilst Tom Cairns and Harvey Skinner continue in a half-back partnership that has looked promising in the early pool matches.
This season is a real opportunity for Skinner to make the number 10 jersey his own, and so far he has shown real composure and authority in driving this team around the park.
In the pack, Scott Sio and Ehren Painter return either side of captain Jack Yeandle in the front row. The scrum has been a positive source of penalties and possession across the opening rounds but there is no doubt this will be the toughest test of the revamped Chiefs set-piece.
Run Tuima has show real promise since his move up into the second-row and it’s an all action back-row of Ethan Roots, Jacques Vermeulen and Greg Fisilau to round out the eight.
Bath ran Northampton Saints close in a thrilling encounter in the last round, and Hepher added: "They’ll have been disappointed to have lost the game from the position they were in against Northampton, but in that first 20 minutes they were outstanding, so we need to make sure we start well this weekend.”
Bath: Tom de Glanville, Joe Cokanaisiga, Max Ojomoh, Will Butt, Will Muir, Piers Francis, Louis Schreuder, Juan Schoeman, Niall Annett, Johannes Jonker, Ted Hill, Charlie Ewels, Miles Reid (capt), Chris Cloete, Alfie Barbeary. Replacements: Tom Dunn, Beno Obano, Thomas du Toit, Fergus Lee-Warner, Sam Underhill, Ben Spencer, Prlando Bailey, Jaco Coetzee.
Exeter Chiefs: Josh Hodge, Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, Henry Slade, Joe Hawkins, Tom Wyatt, Harvey Skinner, Tom Cairns, Scott Sio, Jack Yeandle (capt), Ehren Painter, Rus Tuima, Lewis Pearson, Ethan Roots, Jacques Vermeulen, Greg Fisilau. Replacements: Max Norey, Billy Keast, Josh Iosefa-Scott, Matt Postlethwaite, Aidon Davis, Niall Armstrong, Will Haydon-Wood, Tom Hendrickson.