Exeter’s breakthrough in Europe after six largely frustrating campaigns has been based on belief. A club that 10 years ago were playing in the Championship but have contested the last four Premiership finals are no longer prepared to talk themselves down.
The Chiefs are potentially a bonus-point victory over Sale on Sunday from qualifying for the knockout stage of the European Champions Cup for only the second time and their head coach, Rob Baxter, wants his players to have to deal with the pressure of expectation as he targets making an impact in a tournament Exeter have yet to leave their imprint on.
“I wouldn’t swap this for anything else,” Baxter says. “We are well set in the pool and this weekend we can give ourselves a huge step up into where we want to go. We have to be prepared to talk about it like that.
“We are past the days when I remember talking games down as a coach. We have got to be prepared to talk them up and Sunday is a huge opportunity for us. We should expect to go out and perform well: it’s as simple as that. Positive pressure is good for us. There has been an edge in training this week and that is normally a good sign.”
Exeter went into the round at the top of Pool 2 having won their opening three games, starting with an emphatic victory over La Rochelle, their best start to a Champions Cup campaign, and while Baxter has said same again to the 23 who went to Sale a week ago and won 22-20, the Sharks have made eight changes, with Faf de Klerk and Chris Ashton among those given the weekend off.
“Where we are in Europe has not come as a surprise to us,” says Henry Slade, Exeter’s England centre. “We been working very hard in these games for a long time and have been close to doing well a couple of times. In the past we have been undone by some slight lapses in matches, but we have learned from that this season and are ourselves in a good position.
“We know that Sale will make it tough for us, as they did last weekend, but we showed then that we can dig deep and come out on top in tight games like that whereas before we would have lost. We still have improving to do, but there is no reason why we cannot go all the way in Europe.
“We have an incredibly talented squad and we complement each other nicely across the park with options in every part of the side. We are feeling confident but for now we can only think about Sale, who made it incredibly difficult for us last week.”
Sale have won both matches in the back-to-back rounds of the Champions Cup only once before, in 2012 when they were making their first appearance in the competition.
Twice in the last three seasons they have won the away leg but lost at home and their overall record in the matches is six victories and seven defeats.
“They are different to the rest of the season because you play the same side two weeks in a row,” Slade says. “It is all about who can recover the best and learn most from the first game. Sale are a top side but all we can think about is beating them again and then looking forward to the final two matches in the pool.”
Slade was playing for Exeter the week after England’s World Cup final against South Africa in Yokohama, a match in which he played the final half an hour. His return from injury and the cancelled match against France restricted him to one start and less than three hours on the field in the tournament.
“I just wanted to get straight back into it with Exeter,” he says. “It has meant I have not really thought about the World Cup final since.
“It was disappointing at the time to not quite go all the way, but we can take a lot of pride out of where we got to in the tournament. To get back playing here immediately was good for me.”