Exeter Chiefs boss Rob Baxter has recalled a number of his frontline stars for Saturday’s clash with Leicester Tigers at Sandy Park.
In the pack, Ben Moon, Jack Yeandle and Tomas Francis form a new-look front-row, while there is also a recall in the engine room for youngster Jonny Hill.
Amongst the backs, Gareth Steenson returns at fly-half to skipper the side, whilst in the midfield Ollie Devoto comes into partner Henry Slade, who shunts across from the number ten jersey.
Buoyed by last weekend’s first-ever European Champions Cup victory in France, the Chiefs – who triumphed 20-12 against Bordeaux-Begles – head into the game in bullish mood, having won five of their past six fixtures.
The sole blip was a home defeat to the Frenchmen a fortnight ago, but Baxter saw enough in that display to know recent momentum had not been derailed in anyway.
“Our momentum didn’t die just because of that one result, it’s all performance based as far as we are concerned,” added Baxter. “On how many other days do we convert one, two, three or four opportunities that we created that day.
“Fair play to Bordeaux as well, I thought they defended as though their lives depended on it, and one visit from them into our half, off a poor tactical decision on our part, and they scored what proved the all-important score. Yes, we were disappointed with the end result, but overall the momentum of recent weeks stayed in place and that was important.”
Like the Chiefs, the Tigers displayed their own fighting spirit last weekend, bouncing back from a 38-0 mauling away to Munster to gain sweet revenge on the Irish province at Welford Road, winning 18-16 thanks to a late Owen Williams penalty.
Suitably impressed by that performance, Baxter needs little reminding of the threat the Midlanders will pose to his team tomorrow.
“We are aware they’ve had a very good, very big emotional performance against Munster last week,” said the Exeter leader. “I thought that was a fantastic response to what happened the week previous, but at the same time that’s a very typical response from Leicester.
“That is what they are capable of in almost any scenario, they can grit and grind things out. I’m not saying that don’t play good rugby, because we know they do, but they have that emotional experience to get through some tough scenarios.
“They are one of our best competitors in the Premiership and over the years we have had some fantastic games with them. One of those was a battling win here against them last year and it’s those types of games that are what the Premiership is all about.
“We know they always come here and play well, so we have to be ready for them. The fact it’s a Christmas game, it’s a sell-out crowd, this is what it’s all about for me and I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for all of us.”
Meanwhile, Mike Williams returns to the Leicester Tigers atarting line-up for this clash.
Back-rower Williams was used as a second-half replacement in the Tigers’ European win over Munster last Saturday and makes his first start since the trip to Sale Sharks in October after recovering from an arm injury.
Dan Cole is also back in the Tigers matchday squad for the first time since starting all of England’s autumn series victories.
George McGuigan starts at hooker, with Pat Cilliers continuing at tighthead after starting his first game for the club in the Champions Cup last weekend.
Ed Slater is named as captain in the absence of Tom Youngs and starts in the second row alongside Mike Fitzgerald.
Freddie Burns returns to the back-line after being sidelined last week and starts at full-back, with Sam Harrison making his 50th starting appearance for the club at scrum-half.
Form: Leicester Tigers only defeat in their last seven fixtures in all competitions was 0-38 at Munster in Round 3 of the Champions Cup. The Tigers have a won three, lost two record on the road in Premiership Rugby this season. Leicester have lost just one of their last eight encounters with the Chiefs in Premiership Rugby: 6-19 at Sandy Park in November 2015.
Exeter: 15 Phil Dollman, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Ollie Devoto, 12 Henry Slade, 11 Olly Woodburn, 10 Gareth Steenson (c), 9 Will Chudley, 8 Thomas Waldrom, 7 Don Armand, 6 Dave Dennis, 5 Jonny Hill, 4 Mitch Lees, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Jack Yeandle, 1 Ben Moon
Replacements: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17 Carl Rimmer, 18 Greg Holmes, 19 Ollie Atkins, 20 Kai Horstmann, 21 Jack Maunder, 22 Sam Hill, 23 James Short
Leicester: 15 Freddie Burns, 14 Adam Thompstone, 13 Jack Roberts, 12 Manu Tuilagi, 11 Peter Betham, 10 Owen Williams, 9 Sam Harrison, 8 Luke Hamilton, 7 Brendon O’Connor, 6 Mike Williams, 5 Mike Fitzgerald, 4 Ed Slater (c), 3 Pat Cilliers, 2 George McGuigan, 1 Ellis Genge
Replacements: 16 Harry Thacker, 17 Logovi’i Mulipola, 18 Dan Cole, 19 Graham Kitchener, 20 Will Evans, 21 Jono Kitto, 22 George Worth, 23 Tom Brady
Date: Saturday, December 24
Venue: Sandy Park
Kick-off: 15:00 GMT
Referee: Tom Foley
Assistant Referees: Ross Campbell, Phil Watters
TMO: David Rose