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Baxter expects strong Saints test

Exeter boss Rob Baxter does not expect runaway Aviva Premiership leaders Northampton to show any ill-effects from their painful European Champions Cup demise.

Baxter sends his team into battle against the Saints at Sandy Park on Sunday, just eight days after Northampton were crushed 37-5 by French heavyweights Clermont Auvergne.

Exeter need victory to keep them in the Premiership play-off mix, and they are also chasing a season's double, having toppled Northampton at Franklin's Gardens five months ago.

"Northampton have won the Premiership before and they are a consistent top-end finisher, so that kind of tells you that the odd loss doesn't damage them too much," Baxter said.

"Most teams don't get to this end of a Premiership season without having lost somewhere, so they are used to getting through things, and that is what you have to do.

"We have played at Clermont ourselves, and there were plenty of times in that game when we thought we were going very well and then all of a sudden a try was banged in against you, so that's the kind of quality side they are.

"I would imagine with the quality of players Northampton have, and the experience they have, they will be used to bouncing through what are disappointing results and getting back on track.

"For us, it's not really about when is the right time to play Northampton, it's whether we can show the right qualities at this time of year in the big games - that is more my focus."

Exeter have received a double boost ahead of the Saints clash, with full-back Phil Dollman and England back Jack Nowell both returning to action, with Nowell partnering Sam Hill in midfield.

But England lock Courtney Lawes misses out for Saints after taking a knock to his shoulder during the Clermont loss. Christian Day replaces Lawes, while two other changes see Gareth Denman starting at tighthead prop and scrum-half Kahn Fotuali'i taking over from Lee Dickson.

Baxter added: "For me, this is a Premiership encounter at the business end of the season, so everything about it would say it is our biggest home game.

"Yes, it's a tough test, but that is what you expect if you are challenging at the top end at this time of the season.

"People talk about our run-in, but we are playing teams around us, and if we can bang in some wins, it's pulling points off the opposition.

"We will go after each game as best we can between now and the end of the season and see where it takes us."

Sixth-placed Wasps can lift themselves back into play-off contention if they claim a five-point maximum against Kassam Stadium hosts and Premiership basement club London Welsh on Sunday.

Back-row regular Ashley Johnson will make his first Wasps start at hooker after featuring in that role a number of times off the bench this season, while Andrea Masi features at full-back instead of a rested Rob Miller and wing Sailosi Tagicakibau returns from injury.

Wasps rugby director Dai Young said: "If we want to be a top-six side, we have to go to these places and win. But if you don't get it right mentally, it's a game that could hurt you.

"We expect, and everyone else expects us to win. That's not being disrespectful. If you score 70-odd points at home (against London Welsh), you expect to be able to get the win away.

"In order to do that, we have to get our processes right and finish the chances that we create.

"We have four games left in the Premiership to make sure we are in the top six to have another crack at the European Champions Cup next season. That has been our target all season, and now we have to finish the job, starting on Sunday."

In Sunday's other Premiership game, Sale Sharks - one point behind Wasps in seventh - tackle London Irish at the Madejski Stadium.


From Belfast Telegraph