After a mixed bag of results in their last two Champions Cup pool games, Exeter Chiefs now turn their attention back to the Premiership, with a trip to North London. The Chiefs are set to face current champions Saracens, as they close out the club rugby block ahead of the 2024 Six Nations.
By Jack Sanderson
The Chiefs head into this weekend’s game after a tough 40-17 loss away in France against Bayonne, however their win the previous week against Glasgow proved enough to see the Devon side clinch second place in the table. They have secured a derby clash at Sandy Park, as they take on Bath in the round of 16.
Saracens, who won the Premiership title last season, currently sit sixth in the table on 31 points, two places behind the Chiefs (fourth on 35 points). However, with just ten points separating top of the table Northampton and seventh placed Leicester, the Premiership is looking set for an exciting climax at the end of the season, with any number of teams in the running for the trophy.
However, Chiefs Director of Rugby Rob Baxter is only looking to focus on his side’s position in the table, at this stage of the season.
“We’re not really looking at where other people are. That’s a very important thing about not trying to over-plan stuff. We’re just looking at ourselves, we’re in fourth place, we’re effectively one point of those top two positions.
“That’s what we’ve got to do, we’ve got to keep working like that and see where we can end up in the table. Other people will move around in the table depending on what we do, but we’ve got to keep doing what we need to do and that’s collecting points.
“We’ve been pretty effective at that, we’ve started to pick up a lot more bonus points this season, either through scoring tries or through competitive ends to games, so that to me says we’re on a bit of an upward curve”.
Saracens come into this weekend’s game in a bit of mixed form, having beaten Lyon 39-24 at home in the Champions Cup last weekend, but also losing heavily away against Bordeaux the weekend before (55-15). In their last six games, last season’s Premiership champions have won three and lost three. However, despite their inconsistent form in recent weeks, Baxter is still expecting a tough test for his side in North London on Saturday.
“Well, they played a very high-tempo game last week, and were prepared to stick at it against a good Lyon side. That’s maybe slightly different to what you normally see from them, normally they can be a bit more tactical, although they have played a little bit more over the last couple of seasons and lifted tempo so that makes that a challenge.
“That obviously challenges you continually across the game, for your energy levels and your enthusiasm levels, to play and defend and to stay in the fight and get on with things. So that to me was a really interesting game to watch, but also I think tactically they got it right, because in the end the pace of the game broke down Lyon and they came through that very well.
“So there’s obviously a lot of good players there, the battle for us is whether the disruption around the international players coming and going is dealt with better by us or better by them. That’s a separate challenge to how we’re going to play but it’s been a while since we’ve had success up there.”
The last time the Chiefs managed to come away from the StoneX Stadium with a win was back in November of 2017, in a 20-18 victory. Since then they have played four times away against Saracens and lost all four, with their biggest defeat coming in December of 2022 in a 35-3 hammering in North London. The Chiefs will hope their poor run of form away at Saracens will end this weekend, with Rob Baxter putting that form down to how well Saracens have performed at home in recent years.
“I think they’ve played very well and that’s probably the big reason, that on the whole when you go there, they’re a team that are expecting or playing in a way that they’re going to be in Premiership knockout games and Premiership finals, and they play that way very well at home.
“That’s why really for me we want to talk about making this a stepping stone because actually we won a couple of times up there once we kind of started to look like a team that could win those end of season games and be in those end of season competitions and it was a marker for us.
“I remember we won away at Saracens in our first season in the Premiership, it was our first ever Premiership away win, but since then it’s been a bit patchy, and like you say in recent years it’s been pretty patchy for us. So we want to go down there and get ourselves back on track after an uncharacteristically flat performance at Bayonne last week”.
With the upcoming Six Nations, a lot of International players have been with their national side throughout the week in training for the competition. Unfortunately for the Chiefs and Saracens, both sides will be without their England International players, as they won’t return from the training camp in time to be declared fit for this weekend’s game.
This means the Chiefs will be without the likes of Henry Slade and Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, and Saracens will be without Maro Itoje and Jamie George. However, Saracens will still have the services of their captain and former England mainstay Owen Farrell, as the fly-half has not been selected for this year’s Six Nations squad due to his personal stand-down.
It has also been confirmed, that Farrell will be moving to France to play his rugby, as Racing 92 confirmed they had signed the number 10 a few days ago. With the news of Farrell being the next English player to make the move to France to play his rugby, a lot has been said on the move, with Rob Baxter having his say on Farrell’s decision to leave the country at the end of the season.
“For me that’s a kind of old news thing isn’t it, because obviously we went through that with a number of our lads last year. As I said before, there are numerous reasons for it. I mean everyone kind of jumps on one reason, like salaries for example.
“As I said before, some of those lads, when I spoke to them, their biggest driving factor was that they’d spent a lot of time at one club and they wanted to experience new things and I imagine that’s a similar situation that Owen Farrell found himself in.
“He’s been at Saracens for a very long time, he’s played a lot of international rugby, he’s had his success, so why not try something different? I completely understand his motivations.”
One player the Chiefs will have available to them is the experienced winger Olly Woodburn, who is into his eighth season at the club after joining from Bath in 2015. Woodburn has played over 160 times for the Chiefs, scoring 56 tries in his time in Devon. The winger has played many times against this weekend’s opposition since joining the Chiefs, and is relishing the chance to lock horns with some of the best again on Saturday.
“There’s a rivalry, of course over the years we’ve been clashing in the finals and even our league games feel like cup games at times so it’s always an exciting time playing against Saracens.
“We’ve still got coaches and a number of players who have played in those games, and we treat Saracens with lots of respect as well so we really want to stand up to the occasion and it’s definitely worth throwing a bit of emotion into games like these.”
The Chiefs will be without their electric and explosive winger Immanuel Feyi-Waboso this weekend due to his commitments with the England squad, but Olly Woodburn was still full of praise for the 21-year-old who he has shared the Chiefs wings with on a number of occasions this season.
“I rate him very highly, on and off the pitch he’s a real bright spark. Obviously his off-field credentials, he’s studying medicine at the same time as playing for England, so he’s got a lot going for him, but he works hard, he’s a good kid and he deserves the plaudits because he’s electrifying, one of the most electrifying powerful players I’ve played with and against so I’d like to see what Steve (Borthwick) does with him in the set-up.”
The last time the two sides met was in October 2023 in the first round of the Premiership at Sandy Park where the Chiefs ran away as 65-10 winners in a dominant display to start off the season.
Winger Josh Hodge scored three tries on the day as well as tries from Feyi-Waboso and Henry Slade which saw Rob Baxter’s side come away with an impressive victory. However, despite such a convincing result at the start of the season Olly Woodburn says the Chiefs won’t be focusing on that game going into this weekend’s clash.
“We don’t necessarily focus on the result, we’ve done our analysis, Saracens will have a lot of the same players, and a lot of the same strategies. It’s worth looking at that game and taking confidence from that game, but we’re by no means expecting the same result. We’re just going to treat Saracens with respect and come at them and expect it to be a really tough, physical Premiership game.”