By Jack Sanderson
Exeter Chiefs prepare for a mouthwatering Champions Cup clash against French giants Toulon this Saturday, with the two sides meeting for the first time since 2013. With the opening round of the 2023 Champions Cup getting underway this weekend, Exeter will be looking to reverse the result from a decade ago, when they lost 32-20 at Sandy Park.
From that Chiefs starting XV 10 years ago, just two players remain, with centre Henry Slade and hooker Jack Yeandle still under Rob Baxter’s employ. The Chiefs head into this weekend’s away trip having been beaten 41-24 away to Bath in their final Premiership match before their Champions Cup break.
Rob Baxter’s men fell foul to a poor penalty count against the Somerset side, which cost what was looking like a tightly fought game. Baxter said that he had spoken to his side about the issue, but is cautious of getting ahead of himself and making things too complex for his young squad.
“We didn’t overly debrief the Bath game. You know, we got some things wrong but we haven’t ripped ourselves to pieces over it. Sixty minutes in, we’re within one score, we’re kind of in the game in some ways, it wasn’t exactly how we wanted it to be, but we were competitive in there and we were holding it together. As I say, we were putting a little bit of pressure on Bath, and then one or two things happened and we get the yellow card. Then a couple of quick scores completely changed the game don’t they, and that’s very much what happened to us on the day.
“We talked about that in a very brief way, because we’re a young team and actually, what tends to happen is that you start to add too much detail and add too many layers as the season is looking quite exciting. You know, we went into that game against Bath and there was a scenario, where we could both end up towards the top of the Premiership.
“That’s quite exciting, but at the same time you’ve got to be careful that you’re not making things too complex and don’t jump ahead of yourselves too much. Perhaps, we slowly have done that over the past two or three weeks, and actually what we’ve done this week is just trim things back a little bit, talked about the things we did and all the things we spoke about at the start of the season. About how we wanted to have pace in the game, how we wanted to open up our attacking options, which we should be able to do at Toulon as the conditions should allow us to do that. So yeah, we’ve kept things pretty simple and pretty brief this week.”
Toulon currently sit second in the Top 14, just a point off the summit behind Racing 92. Having won all five of their home games at the Stade Mayol this season, many would have the three-time Champions Cup winners to come in as favourites on Saturday. With Exeter the expected underdogs for this match, Rob Baxter is hoping for his side to enjoy the experience of playing against a top side, but also wants his men to live up to the standards they have set for themselves.
“For me this is a great opportunity for the team to learn and gain a fantastic experience about the kind of games that in the future, we will have some expectation of winning.
“Right here and now, I’m not saying we don’t have an expectation of playing well, because we have an expectation of playing well, that’s always our expectation, and what will be off the back of that will be. But I’m certainly not going to run before I walk, I’m not going to put too much pressure on the guys as I want them to go over there and enjoy the experience, and enjoy playing well together and take everything out of the game they can.”
The Chiefs will be without scrum-half Niall Armstrong and back rower Aidon Davis for their trip to France after they picked up injuries against Bath. Armstrong has scored three tries in 8 games since joining the Chiefs this season through the Exeter University programme. Davis has scored 4 tries in 21 appearances since joining from the Toyota Cheetahs at the start of the 2022/2023 season, and has been described as a player with a ‘phenomenal work rate’.
Both players injured their shoulders in the loss against Bath, and will be out for two to three months and two to three weeks respectively. However, in some better news for the chiefs, this Saturday’s game against Toulon will mark the return of Immanuel Feyi-Waboso from injury. The versatile Wales U18 back has scored 5 tries in 11 appearances since joining the club from Wasps, and will be a huge boost to the Exeter squad as they prepare for the trip to France.
“Neither Aidon nor Niall will be available this week. Niall’s is probably a bit worse, a dislocated shoulder.” Baxter said.
“He had a scan yesterday, it’s likely to need an operation. Aidon’s is a bit different, his is more like an AC shoulder joint injury, and we’re looking at 2-3 weeks for that one.
“Other than those two guys we’ve come through it OK. Manny’s now back available after taking him off precautionary against Newcastle. So you know, it’s like anything, as guys become unavailable, other guys become available so that’s where we are”.
Baxter hinted that there is likely to be a number of players making their European debut in the squad for Saturday, meaning the team is likely to be quite inexperienced. However, the Chiefs Director of Rugby seemed undeterred at the difference of experience between the two sides, going on to say his team will be going to the Stade Mayol to challenge their opponents, not just make up the numbers. Baxter believes that his side has proved themselves against the Premiership’s top clubs, and thinks that he could translate this to a big performance from his young Chiefs in Europe.
“Ultimately, we want to make as much of this game as we can about ourselves. That’s how we’ve focussed and talked about most of these games, that genuinely are about experience and about moving forward.
“We want to have some genuine attacking options and we want to drive those through with some tempo and pace and that’s what we want to do to challenge Toulon. We certainly don’t want to just be running around defending Toulon all day.
“I think some people forget that we’ve challenged some really good sides in the Premiership and beaten some decent teams in the Premiership. I think we’re capable of doing that but we’re going to have to get a lot of things right and we have to be towards our best physically.
“That’s the challenge, when you’re a new group and still learning, it’s about getting yourself to that level of being right towards the top of where you are mentally and physically, and then converting that when you get those opportunities.
“We’ve been in some battles this season, some of them we’ve come through and some of them we haven’t. If it turns into a battle let’s fight the battle and let’s enjoy it.”
At the start of the 2022/2023 season, Toulon brought ex-referee Romain Poite onto their coaching staff to help them prepare for their games. When asked about this and whether he’d spoken to his side about the differences between English and European referees, Baxter said that he’d told his players that whichever team is physically and mentally on top of the game, is the team that will come out on top of the referee’s decisions. He also hinted that the Chiefs might follow in the footsteps of Toulon in the future, but right now they just want to stick to the basics.
“A referee tends to know the team that’s got momentum, and you’ll tend to get. I’m not going to say the rub of the green, but you’ll tend to think things are going ok because you’ll get the feel of the ref, and the ref will get the feel of the game.
“You actually tend to feel a bit hard done by when you’re the team on the back foot, and you’re scrambling and you’re fighting and you’re under pressure, and so that’s what we’ve talked about. If we act and we look tough and dominant and behave dominant around the breakdown area, we’ll probably be the team that comes out better there.
“What Toulon are doing there with bringing in a full time referee, or what we would do with having more influence with referees and more referee sessions, that is something we would do down the line with this group. But right now, there’s only so much information you can drown the lads with, when you’re five or six games into your Premiership career.”
The Chiefs will need to be at the top of their game to come back from France with the win this Saturday, but Baxter believes that with the competition being at such a good level at the moment, any team can turn up on their day and beat anyone. This is what the Chiefs fans will be hoping for, as they make the trip to South of France.
“There’s a level of competition which means you have to be very good, or almost bang on, to be winning week in, week out. I know Newcastle (Falcons) are languishing a little bit, but outside of that, it doesn’t feel like there’s any team that can’t turn up on their day, and beat any of the other teams. That’s genuine, and I think we’ve said that before in the past, but this year it actually feels like it and that’s something that can keep the season interesting.”