Improved Exeter Chiefs can deal with Bath jinx
Exeter Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter wants his players to show they are an improved side on their return to Aviva Premiership action at Bath tomorrow.
The Devon club made their Heineken Cup debut against champions Leinster two weekends ago and hosted their first fixture in Europe's top club competition, against Clermont Auvergne, the following weekend.
Both games ended in defeat but Baxter and his men learned plenty from the experience of playing against two of the Heineken Cup's big contenders this season.
Chiefs have never beaten Bath in the top flight, so achieving that landmark at the Recreation Ground tomorrow would give Baxter further evidence of progress made.
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He said: "We try and talk season on season about making improvements. The last time we went to Bath, we got a losing bonus point there.
"The next step forward is to get a little bit more. We have not focused on the fact we haven't beaten Bath before – we haven't spoken about it.
"We've thought how we need to play, what we need to do, what are the challenges coming from Bath and we want to get on with it."
Baxter added: "The only way I can judge Bath is on the last three or four games that we have analysed. Within that, we see a very strong, well-organised side.
"They gave Sale, in the last quarter of the game, a bit of a pasting. They've had some good results in the Amlin [Challenge Cup] as well and we know they have got quality internationals in there.
"The challenge for us is not to worry too much about Bath or the fact we haven't beaten them.
"We need to do what we've done when we've been at our best – that is when we play and do what we want to do and impose ourselves on the opposition."
Part of the Chiefs' preparation work has involved analysing last weekend's 46-12 defeat to Clermont at Sandy Park. While the final score suggests a one-sided contest, the reality was very different, according to Baxter.
"In some ways the players are better now than they were immediately after the game," said Baxter.
"After the game, you sit there and you look at the score and think that was a bit of a beating in the second half.
"But when you go through the game with the guys and look at the things that went against us, you realise we let it slip away a little bit quicker than we needed to."
Baxter also feels that his side need to minimise errors to avoid game-changing moments such as Wesley Fofana's stroke of luck, when the Frenchman scored a crucial try despite being forced into touch by Chiefs flanker Tom Johnson in the build-up.
Clermont added another score moments later to seemingly put the game beyond their hosts. Baxter believes that perception of the game beyond his side was also false.
He said: "We conceded two quick-fire tries. It was 25-12 for a long period of the game.
"At that stage, mentally, I don't think we realised that one score puts us back to 25-19 and the pressure is massively back on them because you are one play away from winning the game.
"The quick tries knocked us out of our stride a little bit. We then got back in the game but then we made the errors that led to more scores for them.
"How can we avoid scrambling? How can we avoid losing the ball when we're in possession? We need to deal with those things rather than worrying too much about the referee's interpretation of things.
"In some ways, I think the guys are happier with what they've seen in the cold light of day.
"At the same time, we are aware that the little bits that did go against us, we have to be better at dealing with them."
Baxter is expected to make some alterations to his starting line-up this weekend.
Argentinian international Gonzalo Camacho is back in contention but Sireli Naqelevuki is likely to be rested.
Fellow back Josh Tatupu is making good progress on his broken ankle.
Baxter said: "He is very close. He is an international-quality player and you have to look at involving him – you have tough decisions every week, making those calls. He's back now and has done a little bit more training and is back up and running.
"Josh is probably not as far off coming back as we originally thought. He has made a remarkable recovery from a broken ankle.
"He was walking around in a boot within a couple of weeks and has been walking around without any support for a couple of weeks already.
"We have been keeping Sireli on his feet for longer than we needed.
"We wanted to keep him playing and involved but needed rest time and medical attention on one of his knees.
"We will push ahead and get that done this week."
Former England flanker Andy Hazell has been hit with a 14-week suspension. The Gloucester forward was sent off for striking an opponent during his team's Amlin Challenge Cup victory over Mont-de-Marsan in France earlier this month.