Rob Baxter targets Heineken Cup berth as Exeter face Tigers
AFTER two weekends off, Exeter Chiefs return to action this Saturday – with the race on to secure a Heineken Cup spot.
With five games of the Aviva Premiership campaign to go, Rob Baxter's men are eighth in the table.
There are six places available for English teams in the European competition – seven if one of them wins it this term – so the Sandy Park outfit need to climb the table to give themselves a chance of making it.
That starts this weekend with the visit of two-time continental champions Leicester, who are well positioned in third place.
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Exeter, on 41 points, are one behind Bath and five behind both Gloucester and Wasps. Baxter's men have the best points difference of those four teams, but need to continue their two-game winning streak to keep the pressure on the teams above them.
The head coach said: "We talk a lot about the fact that we want to be seen as an ambitious team and ambitious players trying to get things.
"From where we are now in the season, the only thing that's there for us is to see how far up the table we can get. We should be putting up a determined fight to climb that table and see what we can achieve.
"All the players and everyone at the club has enjoyed being in the Heineken Cup and it's still a possibility for us.
"There are a lot of points left in the season, a lot left for us to fight for, and it would be fantastic to keep working hard, get some decent performances and force some results that gather the points that become very important towards the end of the season."
Before the break while the LV= Cup semi-finals and final took place, Exeter recorded back-to-back successes at home against basement dwellers London Welsh and away to defending champions Harlequins.
Baxter knows his side need to get back into that kind of form as the Tigers will be upping their game to challenge for honours as the season draws towards a climax.
"The important thing now is to remember what we've been doing well and what created our last two performances and make sure we bring that on Saturday," he said.
"It should be a big, energetic performance from ourselves. Leicester are very good at getting themselves in the right frame of mind and the right physicality for this time of year, it's when they tend to be very good. It will be a fantastic challenge for us."
The gap between matches has given several Exeter players a chance to get fully fit to be in contention to return to action.
Long-term absentees James Phillips (knee), Chris Whitehead (neck) and Brett Sturgess (arm) are available, as are Jason Shoemark (knee), Dean Mumm (ribs) and Hoani Tui (head), who missed the win at Quins.
Baxter said: "Chris Whitehead's back ready to go now, Brett Sturgess is, James Phillips is too and we're hoping Dean Mumm, Jason Shoemark and Hoani Tui will be in contention.
"Some bumps and bruises should have cleared up over the last couple of weeks. We've definitely got more players available now than we did a few weeks ago."
In addition to the players who are returning to fitness, the quartet who helped England under-20s win the Six Nations title last Friday – Jack Nowell, Henry Slade, Sam Hill and Luke Cowan-Dickie – are available again.
"They've got an opportunity, just like every other player in the squad," Baxter said of the youngsters. "If we feel they're the guys on form and playing well we'll certainly have a look at them."