We look ahead to Saturday’s Premiership semi-final between defending champions Exeter Chiefs and Sale Sharks at Sandy Park…
Exeter are appearing in their sixth successive Premiership semi-final, and all have been played at Sandy Park where they have a 100 per cent winning record in the previous five.
Rob Baxter’s side have also won their last seven Premiership matches since their 34-18 defeat at Gloucester at the end of March. and have not been defeated at home in the Premiership since Northampton were the visitors on February 20.
Sale Sharks have played in two previous Premiership semi-final matches, both against Wasps, losing at Adams Park in 2005 and winning at Edgeley Park in 2006.
Sale’s narrow defeat to Exeter last Saturday ended an eight-game winning run in the tournament, while the last four fixtures between the two clubs have been evenly split with two wins apiece.
The Sharks have won just twice at Sandy Park in 12 previous visits in all tournaments – both in the Premiership in 2014 and January 2020. The two clubs have never met before in any knockout match.
🏆 – TROPHY HUNTER: @ExeterChiefs No.8 @samsimmonds_ poses with his various awards from @premrugby
🏆 Player of the Season
🏆 Top Try-Scorer
🏆 Player of the Month for May
🏆 Special Award for Try-Scoring Record
Not a bad haul pic.twitter.com/RK7C9MHows
Baxter has told his charges it’s ‘all or nothing’ ahead of the clash, with the club’s Director of Rugby all too aware that his players will have to give everything in their quest to overcome a stubborn Sharks outfit who, for an hour at least last weekend, held the upper hand in their Round 22 match-up.
Despite losing Scottish international Sam Skinner to a second-half red card, the Chiefs battled back from 19-3 down to eventually triumph 20-19. That success not only ensured the defending champions secured a top-two finish but, more importantly, meant they would have home advantage in this swift rematch.
“I’m looking forward to the weekend,” said Baxter. “In a funny kind of way, this is where the season gets exciting.
“People may think it’s because the big games are coming, which they are, but from a coaching perspective it’s a little different. For me, getting into that top four, the top two, that’s the tough bit. Now, it’s about rolling our sleeves up and enjoying two games to win the season.
“Personally, I have to give great credit to the players for getting to this position again. To win 17, 18 games to get into the top two, that’s tough, but it also shows great consistency.
“I know Bristol were in the last four last season, but the other two sides haven’t been at this stage for some time, so we have to use our experiences of the past to lock ourselves in and really go after these games.
Skinner will be absent for tomorrow and the next four weeks after he was suspended by an RFU Disciplinary panel earlier this week for his dismissal – and he will be joined on the sidelines in a similar vein by Dave Ewers, who was found guilty by the same panel following a citing charge brought against him after the game.
The loss of both forwards will certainly be felt by the Chiefs, but Baxter admits those who step up now have the opportunity to make their mark.
“I’m not going to sit here and say what happened with Sam and Dave isn’t disappointing, because it has hurt us as a group,” added Baxter. “Equally, we have to use that hurt in a positive way and I’m certain that whoever steps up will be good in their own right because they themselves are good players.
“Stars are born now, that is how it happens. That bit of steel that finishes off where they need to go is created by moments like this. And that steel is created in furnaces, not running around on the sand or in the sea having a laugh. You do the hard work and get yourself in the thick of the fire, that is what those guys will have to do.”
Further team news for the Chiefs sees Jonny Gray replace fellow Scottish international Skinner in the second-row, while the absence of Ewers means Jannes Kirsten switches to blindside flank with Richard Capstick handed the No 7 jersey after an impressive cameo off the bench last week.
In the back division, the sole change sees Jack Nowell return from his knee injury to take over at full-back from Stuart Hogg, who is named on the bench alongside the addition of Don Armand.
Exeter Chiefs: 15 Jack Nowell, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Ollie Devoto, 11 Tom O’Flaherty, 10 Joe Simmonds (c), 9 Jack Maunder; 1 Alec Hepburn, 2 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 3 Harry Williams, 4 Jonny Gray, 5 Jonny Hill, 6 Jannes Kirsten, 7 Richard Capstick, 8 Sam Simmonds
Replacements: 16 Jack Yeandle, 17 Ben Moon, 18 Marcus Street, 19 Sean Lonsdale, 20 Don Armand, 21 Stu Townsend, 22 Harvey Skinner, 23 Stuart Hogg.
📢 – TEAM NEWS: Here is your @ExeterChiefs side to face @SaleSharksRugby in tomorrow's sold-out @premrugby semi-final at @SandyParkExeter (4:30pm) ⬇️https://t.co/llv0yoVZwg#EXEvSAL pic.twitter.com/jlu8jiXVfu
Meanwhile, Sale director of rugby Alex Sanderson has made a total of seven changes to his matchday 23 following defeat to the Chiefs last weekend as Ben Curry, Robert du Preez and Curtis Langdon all return to the Sharks starting line-up for the semi-finals.
Sanderson names a highly experienced pack to face Exeter on Saturday. Ross Harrison, Curtis Langdon and Coenie Oosthuizen all line up in an abrasive Sharks front-row, whilst the now familiar lock pairing of Cobus Wiese and Jean-Luc du Preez provide ample power in the second row.
Tom Curry shifts over to blindside flanker following Cameron Neild’s injury in Round 22. The British and Irish Lion joins identical twin brother Ben and the imposing Daniel du Preez in an electric Sharks back row.
𝗦𝗘𝗠𝗜-𝗙𝗜𝗡𝗔𝗟 𝗧𝗘𝗔𝗠 𝗡𝗘𝗪𝗦 | 🏆v🦈
Here are #YourSharks to face @ExeterChiefs in tomorrow's #GallagherPrem semi-final!
🙌 @CurtisLangdon2 returns to action!
💪 @BenCurry98 back in the starting line-up
👋 @RaffiQuirke gets his shot at Sandy Park#EXEvSAL pic.twitter.com/tJsmXI6CCy
Springbok star Robert du Preez links up with compatriot Faf de Klerk at half-back in the absence of the injured AJ MacGinty and he has an exciting Sharks back line outside him for the Sandy Park showdown. Manu Tuilagi provides maximum physicality in midfield alongside the deft skill of ever-present Sam James.
The pace and power of Arron Reed and former Chief Byron McGuigan provide further options on the wings, while Simon Hammersley wears the 15 shirt after a solid performance at full back in round 22.
“We’re very motivated to go down there and have another crack. It’s a real gift,” said Sanderson.
“Usually after a loss, or if you leave something out there or don’t quite empty the tank, you go home and you have these feelings of discomfort and anger, and you aren’t able to exorcise these feelings until the week after. Even when you do get that chance to exorcise them, it’s against a different team so you don’t get change to exorcise them fully.
“We’ve got the opportunity to right all our wrongs this weekend against the same opposition, I think that’s a rare gift, so we can’t wait to get back out there on Saturday.”
Sale Sharks: 15 Simon Hammersley, 14 Byron McGuigan, 13 Sam James, 12 Manu Tuilagi, 11 Marland Yarde, 10 Robert du Preez, 9 Faf de Klerk; 1 Ross Harrison, 2 Curtis Langdon, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 4 Cobus Wiese, 5 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Tom Curry (c), 7 Ben Curry 8 Daniel du Preez.
Replacements: 16 Ewan Ashman, 17 Valery Morozov, 18 Will-Griff John, 19 James Phillips, 20 Jono Ross, 21 Raffi Quirke, 22 Kieran Wilkinson, 23 Rohan Janse van Rensburg.
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