Chiefs coach Baxter expects Clermont to provide hardest French test
EXETER Chiefs head over the English Channel again this weekend with a proud history of performing well in France behind them.
While they have lost three of their four away matches against French opposition, their heaviest defeat is by just five points.
That came against Stade Français in last season's Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-finals and is one of two losses to have been decided in the final moments.
However, head coach Rob Baxter readily admits Saturday's encounter with Clermont Auvergne is the toughest challenge his side have faced in France.
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Unbeaten in Pool Five of the Heineken Cup so far this season, second in their domestic Top 14 and on the back of a 53-game winning run at home, Vern Cotter's side will take some stopping this weekend.
Baxter said one of the key factors in the past is that the Chiefs have made sure they enjoyed every moment of being in a different environment when they have played in France.
"We manage to make them one-off games. We don't see it as a part of the season we have to get on with, we really go for them and enjoy them," said Baxter.
"We talk a lot about maximising the experience, both as a team and as an individual player. That's served us very well.
"The atmosphere and the challenges have seemed to bring the best out of us a number of times but this is the toughest of all of them.
"It's a fantastic challenge. Big parts of Clermont's game are very good and they've got an exceptional squad. It's a nice test but one we'll look forward to and we'll enjoy our time away together."
Saturday's game at the Stade Marcel Michelin is the first of four cup matches in a row for the Chiefs as they take a break from the Aviva Premiership.
After Leinster travel to Sandy Park in the final group game in the Heineken Cup, Exeter complete their pool matches in the LV= Cup with a trip to Bath and the visit of Northampton.
The latter two will be a chance for the fringe players and youngsters in the squad to get another chance to shine.
First off, however, Baxter is looking for his players to show they have learned from some of their mistakes in the 30-19 defeat against Northampton last weekend.
"We can have a real focus over these four weeks about how we attack these games and how we want to move ourselves forward," he said.
"It's a great challenge for the squad and I'm really looking forward to it. They're a big opportunity for us to show what we're about. Different players get exposure and it's a different challenge in a different culture to playing in the Premiership.
"If there's anywhere that's a real test to go it's Clermont – it's 53 games on the bounce they've won at home now. It's just the environment you want to go into if you want to test yourself.
"We know after the last three weeks there are elements of our game we want to work on, we'll be looking to work on those this weekend and try to prove a point that we are learning from these periods.
"We'll try to make the game about Exeter because, slightly differently to the game last weekend against Northampton, Clermont aren't under too much pressure. They've won all their games so far, they're sitting pretty at the top of the pool and they probably feel pretty good about themselves."
The news on the injury front has been good for Baxter this week. Haydn Thomas and Phil Dollman, who failed to last the distance against Northampton, should both be fit.
Jason Shoemark could return after recovering from the illness that restricted his involvement in training last week.
James Scaysbrook, who was rested last time out, should also come back into the squad, although Simon Alcott needs a little longer to get over his neck injury.
While this weekend's game comes a little too soon for him, Kai Horstmann could feature in the LV= Cup at Bath.