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The 'full-blooded' Exeter emotions as Saracens look to 'dent' them

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

Exeter boss Rob Baxter reckons there is no underestimating the importance of the outcome of this Sunday’s renewal of their edgy rivalry with Saracens, the club found to have won Premiership titles in a number of seasons in which they broke the league’s salary cap. Rather than have that silverware taken from them, the London outfit were instead only automatically relegated from the top flight for the 2020/21 Championship season. 

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With Saracens winning promotion back at the first attempt, it resulted in them visiting Sandy Park last December for a Premiership fixture that was narrowly won by Exeter on an 18-15 scoreline. However, with the Chiefs winning only six of their eleven league games since then, they are clinging on in the fourth and final position for the end-of-season playoffs.  

That inconsistency is in contrast to the better form of Saracens, which currently has them flying high in second place and looking to nail down home advantage in the semi-finals, a target that comes with the added incentive of knowing that a win over Exeter at the StoneX on Sunday would be a huge blow to Baxter and his hopes of reaching the Premiership final for the seventh successive season. 

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With Harlequins, the defending champions, hosting league leaders Leicester on Saturday, the level of hype leading into this weekend isn’t the same as it used to be for previous Saracens versus Exeter games. For instance, only a half-dozen journalists joined Baxter on Thursday for his Exeter media briefing Zoom call previewing the latest instalment of a rivalry that usually attracts way more publicity, especially given the fallout from the salary cap controversy of recent years surrounding the Londoners.  

However, that lessened glare of publicity isn’t taking anything away from this latest meeting in the eyes of Baxter, who knows his Exeter team must deliver as five of the six teams surrounding them on the table have a game in hand on the Chiefs who will be on a bye week in next week’s round 24. “It is (a must-see game),” he agreed when asked by RugbyPass about the current status of the fierce Exeter rivalry with Saracens.  

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“It’s important to both sides. We have met in numerous finals, people are aware there is a bit of history around the salary cap stuff and there is no point in me saying that doesn’t exist because it plainly does. If you play in numerous finals against a team, then what happened is bound to have some effect on how a club feels from the top to the bottom. If it happened the other way around the feeling would be exactly the same.

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No one is going to be naive enough to say it wouldn’t, that (feeling) would have happened anyway. But I still think as well the key and why I think particularly the players like playing against each other is they tend to be a close rival on the field in all kinds of ways.

“Vying for international places, where we want to be in the league, trying to win trophies, so it itself has become a big game because we have been around a lot of big games, semi-finals and finals together, and even without any of the other stuff that has happened, it would be a growing rivalry.

“For us now it is a growing rivalry because this week it is an opportunity for Saracens to dent us getting into the top four and to help them cement a top two. For us, it is a fight to stay in the top four. This game has got a lot of connotations and for that reason, it should be a very full-blooded encounter. If it is not that will probably be us not delivering on the day what we need to.”

In contrast to previous seasons where Exeter metronomically produced the wins that had them placed higher on the table, their uncharacteristic inconsistencies this season have left Baxter and co frustrated that they have lost momentum – but he isn’t writing off their chances of producing a winning performance in London just eight days after they exited the Heineken Champions Cup at the hands of Munster.  

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“I have seen these guys do some amazing things and that is why it would be a big result for us because it is going to be a very important game for the reasons of keeping our season alive and to keep going. When I say I am baffled, I’m not really baffled. I pretty much know what has happened and what has deflected our performances and our togetherness a little bit. 

“What I am saying is what is a little baffling is one week it can all come together and then another week it can’t and it is that bit that is a little baffling, but I kind of know why it is. It is because we step up to a challenge one minute and then we kind of draw a breath and go, ‘That’s okay, everything is right now’. But actually, it doesn’t work like that.

“Every game is a huge challenge and you have got to step up and step up and step up and that builds you your momentum, builds your belief across the board and everyone is buying in, turning up at training and doing what needs to get done, questions don’t need to be asked, guys aren’t looking around for a reason to do something different and you just get on with things. 

“That is where you have got to really credit Saracens. They get on with things probably with the best, the most consistency in the Premiership for a long time now but then you look at the teams that are thriving this year like Leicester, they are getting on with it. Their lads are just getting on with it, they are doing what Leicester do and they have agreed to do it and they work hard at it. 

“It makes you a very good side and there are not really any questions being asked because it is successful for them so they love doing it. That is what makes strength and that is the little bit we have got to re-find, that we just get on with things and we enjoy doing it.”

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