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  Chiefs all set to host Bath in Premiership semi on Saturday  
 

ROB Baxter has spelt out to his Exeter Chiefs side that they will need to produce a ‘season’s best’ display if they are to overcome rivals Bath Rugby in tomorrow’s Gallagher Premiership semi-final at Sandy Park (4:30pm).

In a week where off-field matters have dominated the rugby headlines, now it’s on-field matters that will take centre stage for the Chiefs and Bath, who themselves were only confirmed as the final play-off side on Wednesday morning.

Up until that point, Baxter and his players were having to play the waiting game whilst detailed discussions and further Covid-19 testing results were carried out on fellow play-off contenders Sale Sharks, who ahead of last week’s Round 22 fixtures had produced multiple positive tests across their playing side.

Initially, Premiership Rugby granted Steve Diamond’s side the opportunity to test their squad further ahead of their re-arranged match with Worcester Warriors, but once a further eight positive cases were detected, the Manchester-based club were forced to forfeit their fixture - and with it went their own hopes of contesting for a place in the Twickenham final in a fortnight’s time.

Sale’s loss is certainly Bath’s gain and now they will head to Sandy Park looking to inflict their own spot of bother on Baxter’s side, who are chasing not only Premiership glory, but also European success next week in the Heineken Champions Cup final against Racing 92.

It marks the start of a huge few weeks for the Devonians, who having played in the last four Premiership finals - winning only once in 2017 - are now setting their sights on yet another return trip to English Rugby’s HQ.

“It should be a fantastic semi-final,” said Baxter this week. “Firstly, though, I just hope nobody is seriously ill up at Sale and that the players, the staff, their families and loved ones are all safe and well. The situation they have found themselves in is incredibly tough, especially as it’s ruled them out of the top four, but it kind of sums up what a weird season it has been.

“Now that things are sorted and we know we are playing Bath, it’s important we move on quickly. Although we didn’t know until Wednesday that we would be playing them, we had some expectations that it would be tough for Sale, particularly given what had happened with their tests - and the numbers that were involved, that they wouldn’t be able to play the semi-final.

“With that in mind, the coaches here have done a huge amount of prep to make sure we had as many things covered as possible, so that when we did get the final decision we were in a place to just go with things. Not knowing who we were going to play actually helped us a little bit, just because it allowed us to talk and focus more on ourselves, now we’ve just add in bits to cater for Bath.”

Tomorrow’s test marks the start of what could be another amazing chapter in the history books of the Chiefs and Baxter is determined his squad make the most of the opportunities they have given to themselves over the course of this truncated season.

“I often say to the players, nobody will win a competition like this again,” added Baxter. “In our case, we actually have the option of two competitions. I just hope and pray that there won’t be a scenario where we play big semi-finals and finals behind closed doors again, not do we have midweek games, back-to-back games, European games back-to-back, because it is tough.

“That said, our guys are coming through all these experiences very well and as a player it’s something you will be able to talk about for the rest of your lives if it goes well. If we have the three weeks we really want and need as a club, I’ve no doubt this will be something that will live with me for the rest of my life - and it will be something we’re all a able to talk about with a lot of pride.”

Although the Chiefs head into the semi-final having lost their last three Premiership games, Baxter will be buoyed by the fact that he has a virtually full-strength line-up at his disposal for the visit of Bath.

Since rugby restarted, Baxter has used 57 different players in the top-flight, offering a number of fringe first-teamers the chance to shine. Tomorrow, he will parade virtually the same 23 that defeated Toulouse in Europe a fortnight ago.

“Our guys should be well prepared, particularly as they didn’t play against either London Irish or Wasps,” explained the Chiefs’ Director of Rugby. “They should be fully energised and ready to go. They’ve looked good in training this week and I think we’re ready to go.

“Having had that experience of playing in semi-finals in the past, we should look to make that count, because it is different to playing in a final. Semi-finals are about emotion, but not allowing that emotion to over rule everything. In finals, I think there is more emotion, because you’re dealing with the highs and lows of everything, even before you arrive at a game.

“For a semi-final, it’s all about putting in a good performance, full or energy and drive, because you have to do that to make sure you play well. Bath, we know, will be tough opponents. Although we beat them here earlier in the season, that will count for nothing this weekend. They are one of of the form sides since lockdown and when you watch them play, they look like they are a side enjoying their rugby. As a coach, I always worry when I see a side enjoying themselves because that normally means they are playing well.

“As I’ve said to our guys, it’s going to be a huge challenge and we’re going to have put in a season’s best performance. We’re at the semi-final stage of the competition, the top four sides in the division, so you should be preparing for a huge test.”

Team news for the Chiefs sees Olly Woodburn come in on the wing for Jack Nowell, who misses out with a foot injury. Ollie Devoto, another former Bath player, replaces Ian Whitten in the centre and up front, South African Jacques Vermeulen returns to the fold in place of Sam Skinner, who drops to the bench.

15 Stuart Hogg
14 Olly Woodburn
13 Henry Slade
12 Ollie Devoto
11 Tom O’Flaherty
10 Joe Simmonds (capt)
9 Jack Maunder
1 Alec Hepburn
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Harry Williams
4 Jonny Gray
5 Jonny Hill
6 Dave Ewers
7 Jacques Vermeulen
8 Sam Simmonds

16 Jack Yeandle
17 Ben Moon
18 Tomas Francis
19 Sam Skinner
20 Jannes Kirsten
21 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne
22 Gareth Steenson
23 Ian Whitten



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