Planet Rugby

Preview: Exeter v Bath

25th February 2011 11:49

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SKY_MOBILE Gareth Steenson

Has to be on the mark: Steenson

Exeter head coach Rob Baxter admits he and his squad are relishing the prospect of tackling in-form Bath in Saturday's clash at Sandy Park.

Back-to-back league wins over Harlequins and Newcastle Falcons have helped the newly-promoted Chiefs to ease themselves clear of the relegation dogfight and instead look towards the upper half of English rugby's top flight.

This Saturday, however, the Chiefs will find themselves up against West Country rivals Bath, who themselves are in a rich vein of form. Last week's comprehensive home win over Saints meant that Sir Ian McGeechan's side have won seven of their last eight and will ensure they head down the M5 brimming with confidence.

With a sell-out crowd of 10,500 in attendance, all the ingredients are in place for the two clubs to serve up an evening treat for not only those in attendance, but those who will be tuning in.

"I think our last two results have certainly contributed to the game being a sell-out," said Baxter.

"Also I think people now think they can come to Sandy park and watch a good, competitive game of rugby. Add into the mix we're playing Bath in a local derby; they're a big club and still a big draw, so I think it will be a fantastic occasion and a cracking local derby."

With the Chiefs having now accrued seven victories in 14 Premiership starts this term, Baxter insists there is also a new pressure which is being brought upon his team following their impressive debut campaign.

"Up until now all winning games has done is take pressure off us because we've maintained that gap between ourselves and the bottom of the league," he added.

"Now you kind of get the feeling the last two wins have put a bit of pressure on us because people are going to turn up and expect us to play very well.

"That's the kind of pressure we want to have and we're slowly getting it. Bath will still go into the game as favourites, they're a well established club playing well, but I think our home form makes teams think it's a hard place to come."

Certainly the statistics back up Baxter's thinking with just London Irish and leaders Leicester having headed home with league wins from Devon this season.

Not surprisingly Baxter sticks with an unchanged starting line-up for this latest encounter, although there are changes on the bench where hooker Simon Alcott returns ahead of Chris Whitehead; Argentine fly-half Ignacio Mieres takes over from former Bath star Ryan Davis, while 21-stone Fijian powerhouse Nemani Nadolo is included for the first time in a Premiership squad in place of Phil Dollman.

Winger Nadolo, a recent signing from French side Bourgoin, showcased his destructive talents last Sunday as he helped himself to hat-trick of tries in the club's 55-0 A League victory over London Wasps. Mieres was equally on song as he landed an unblemished nine from nine kicks in testing conditions.

Although sticking with a tried and trusted formula yet again, Baxter insists it is the on field performances from his troops that is making selection that little bit easier.

"We said at the start of the season to the squad that we knew every one of them wanted to play Premiership games and the best way we could reward them was to pick them," said Baxter. "We said 'you keep showing us that we should pick you and we'll keep picking you.' We've pretty much stayed true to that and we've done that again."

Meanwhile, fresh from victory over Northampton last weekend, Bath travel to Sandy Park for their first Premiership meeting against Exeter

Exeter-born lock, Stuart Hooper, knows what a challenge the Premiership new boys will be for the visitors, and hopes that the momentum built up during the second half of the season, which has seen Bath win four Premiership games on the bounce, will help secure their fifth victory in a row in the West Country.

"The second half of the season has been going well, and since the New Year we have ground out some tough wins which has built up our winning momentum and helped get the season back on track for us. Our game last weekend against Northampton was great, the Rec was bouncing and everyone seemed to enjoy watching it as much as we did playing it," he said.

"Having said that I think that without a doubt the best is still to come from us. The victory over Saints was, I think, definitely Bath's most attractive win this season, compared to some of the uglier wins we have had to grind out such as Leeds, Newcastle in the LV= Cup, and Sale, and it's shown people what we are capable of when we play to our potential.

"Exeter away will be good, everyone is pumped and eager to go down to Sandy Park and put on a performance. It is obviously going to be an historic occasion with Bath playing Exeter in the Premiership for the first time ever so it is going to be massive. They have a very strong kicking-fly half, so discipline will be key for us, and they are a team that work very hard for each other. We've seen them run various teams very close already this season, which they've done by playing to their strengths, so we know we are going to have to be on top of our game to come away with the victory.

"When you have done badly at the start of the season it stops you taking it for granted that you are at the top and forces you to continually chip away at the top spot and climb steadily upwards. The Premiership is a tricky place, competitive where you have to deal with injuries and international call ups and what not, but it is about the 15 men on the pitch on the weekend and playing the best rugby you can as a team, and hopefully we can continue doing that this weekend."

Form: The only previous competitive match between the two clubs was in the 1st round of the John Player Cup on 28 January 1978 at the old County Ground where the home side achieved a 20-6 victory. Exeter Chiefs have won their last two games of Aviva Premiership Rugby, against Harlequins and Newcastle. The Chiefs' only defeat at Sandy Park in any competition since October was 15-22 to table-topping Leicester in the Premiership on 2 January. Bath have won their last four matches in the Premiership since their 6-11 reversal at home to Wasps on 27 November. Bath have won three of their last four away encounters.

The teams:

Exeter: 15 Luke Arscott, 14 Matt Jess, 13 Jason Shoemark, 12 Sireli Naqelevuki, 11 Nic Sestaret, 10 Gareth Steenson, 9 Haydn Thomas, 8 Richard Baxter, 7 James Scaysbrook, 6 Tom Johnson, 5 James Hanks, 4 Tom Hayes (capt), 3 Chris Budgen, 2 Neil Clark, 1 Brett Sturgess.
Replacements: 16 Simon Alcott, 17 Ben Moon, 18 Ignacio Elosu, 19 Chad Slade, 20 James Phillips, 21 Junior Poluleuligaga, 22 Ignacio Mieres, 23 Nemani Nadolo.

Bath: 15 Nick Abendanon, 14 Jack Cuthbert, 13 Ben Williams, 12 Olly Barkley, 11 Tom Biggs, 10 Butch James, 9 Michael Claassens, 8 Simon Taylor, 7 Luke Watson (capt), 6 Ben Skirving, 5 Danny Grewcock, 4 Stuart Hooper, 3 Duncan Bell, 2 Lee Mears, 1 David Flatman.
Replacements: 16 Pieter Dixon, 17 David Barnes, 18 Kane Palma-Newport, 19 Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe, 20 Guy Mercer, 21 Mark McMillan, 22 Sam Vesty, 23 Nick Scott.

Date: Saturday, February 26
Kick-off: 20:00
Venue: Sandy Park
Referee: David Rose

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