Baxter adamant there is lots to play for in final cup game
EXETER Chiefs' final Heineken Cup game of the season may bear all the hallmarks of a meaningless match, but that certainly is not how Rob Baxter is approaching Saturday's clash with Irish giants Leinster.
The Chiefs' 46-3 defeat at Clermont Auvergne secured top spot for the French side, while confirming that the Chiefs' maiden bow in Europe's top club competition would not go beyond January.
Not only is European progression out of sight, but so is the wooden spoon, with Welsh outfit the Scarlets well adrift at the bottom of the group.
But Baxter was quick to rubbish suggestions that Leinster's trip to Sandy Park is worthless, with 80 minutes of rugby against the Heineken Cup holders potentially holding plenty of valuable lessons for his side.
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"There is a reality that we can't qualify for the latter stages of the competition," the Chiefs head coach conceded.
"But the other side of it is that, if we get into the Heineken Cup again in the future, we may well head into a final-weekend match needing to win to progress, and that is when the players will have to come good.
"We will also be going all out for it because we want to experience it fully. We also have a proud home record and we love playing in front of our fans.
"We have always had a positive view of things at Exeter and we have always said we want our players in the big games.
"It would be a bit false if we suddenly turned around and decided to not go for it on Saturday. "Leinster will be going for a bonus-point victory so we have to go for it too."
Heading into the game, Baxter has mixed news on the injury front.
Aly Muldowney's painful-looking leg injury appears to be less severe than first feared, although tests are still ongoing.
Phil Dollman's bang to the leg seems unlikely to rule him out of Saturday's match, but Gonzalo Camacho will probably miss out after tweaking a hamstring.
Baxter has been buoyed by the news that scrum-half Haydn Thomas and hot prospect Jack Nowell are close to returns, and the duo could play a role on Saturday.
Unlike the Chiefs, Leinster do have something to play for – qualification to the knockout stages.
Only the two best runners-up of the six pools will join the group winners at the quarter-final stage.
Qualification is out of Leinster's hands in that there are two second-placed teams – Leicester Tigers and Montpellier – with more points.
But with Montpellier hosting Toulon and Leicester entertaining Toulouse, victories are by no means guaranteed.
Leinster will not only be desperate for a bonus-point win but also plenty of tries, as this is the next method used to separate teams with the same number of points.
Helping them on that front is the potential return of mercurial centre Brian O'Driscoll.
The Irish legend played 19 minutes of last Saturday's win over the Scarlets as he recovers from injury, and could be in line to start on Saturday.
The Chiefs' historic first forays into the Heineken Cup may be drawing to a close, but Baxter is well aware that his team's actions may well have repercussions after their exit.
"There is also the integrity of the competition. This result could affect lots of other things in terms of who plays who afterwards, so we have to try and win it," he explained.
"The integrity of the competition is important to me and it is not fair if we don't go for the win just because we can't qualify."