Exeter boss Rob Baxter doesn’t believe a successful defence of their Heineken Champions Cup title would be demeaned by this season revamped format which resulted in the Chiefs only playing a single pool match over the winter.
Rather than have the traditional five pools of four teams in a 20-strong tournament, organisers EPCR opted for a one-off 24-team competition where teams were split into two twelve-team conferences and would each play four pool matches.
However, that revamp was ultimately scuppered, Exeter beating Glasgow in their opening game before their three other matches fell victim to the pandemic and restrictions on winter travel. It resulted in EPCR coming up with a knockout round of 16 to recommence the tournament this weekend and Exeter boss Baxter can’t wait.
Lyon are due at Sandy Park this Saturday and if Exeter progress, they will then host either Leinster or Toulouse at the same ground the following week in the quarter-finals. “If you ask any team that goes on and wins it I don’t think any of them will say it will detract from the achievement,” said Baxter.
“The reality is if you look at what we have got to do now to get anywhere winning it, we have got to beat Lyon this week and then we have got to beat the winners of a game between two previous winners in Toulon and Leinster. So even for us to get to the semi-final stages, to have to beat Lyon and then Leinster or Toulon before you get to the semi-final is still a pretty tough ask.
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“Yes, it’s different. Whether to get to the final and win it is any more or less of a challenge is hard to say. The pools are always tough. They always become a challenge and they always become particularly important to collect points on the way through.
“We failed to get out of the pool on several occasions. We realised how much getting through last year as second seeds helped us so much later in the competition, so it does make it different. Whether it detracts from the achievement of winning it, it’s probably a different argument. It’s just a different format this year.”
Baxter declared that his Exeter are primed to impress, claiming that six wins in nine matches for second place in the Premiership and the energy that Test players such as Stuart Hogg are bringing to the environment post-Six Nations has the Chiefs right where they want to be.
“Definitely for two reasons. One, we have got everyone back in camp for the first time in about ten weeks so everyone is training together, everyone is quite vibrant, the sun is shining, the pitch has firmed up, there is a lot of reasons for us to get excited about this weekend and it does feel like we have got a bit of something about us, something to look forward.
“At the same time a lot of the guys who have been here, if you look at where we are over the last ten weeks, the comings and goings, the stuff around Covid etc and the challenges that have been there, we have managed it extremely well.
“We are where we want to be at this stage in the season. We’re second in the Premiership which means a home semi-final is in our hands, and we are in the knockout stages of the Champions Cup and that is what you want to be doing… It’s not a bad place to be at this stage of the season.”
Asked about the enthusiasm of his returning internationals, Baxter added: “It’s like anything, there is a little element of mental fatigue to a degree. It was easier for Tom (Francis of Wales), his competition finished two weeks ago so he had a chance to re-energise last week.
“But Stuart has come back from a fantastic experience Friday with Scotland going over to France and winning for the first time in years, beating England this year. He has had a really fantastic Six Nations as the Scotland captain and he is bouncing around, a bit of banter flying about as you would expect and that is what it should be like.
“It’s an exciting time to be playing rugby now. The season is only looking like it is coming around the corner. We have got a big game this weekend and the season is starting to wind up. The weather is coming good and there is also a positive feeling around how the country is going a little bit as well.
“Things do look positive in the country. We are going by day by day closer to the potential of crowds coming back in albeit limited and it’s in everyone’s thought process that we hope to be back to near full crowds by next season. All of those things are a huge incentive for players to be driving forward and looking to get back to those kinds of emotive occasions that they have been used to being in before.”
Baxter declared that Hogg was in line for Exeter selection. “He’s fine, he has trained fully this week. He’s flying around, he looks in great shape,” he said before addressing the overall injury outlook. “An improving picture. Henry (Slade) looks pretty good, he is in training.
“Ian Whitten looks pretty good, he’s in training. Ollie (Devoto) has got over the little issue he had last week that made him unavailable for Gloucester. Tom Hendrickson is a little bit behind those guys but we have certainly got more options than we have had last week. Jonny Gray has been in full-time training as well.”
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