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Rob Baxter urges Exeter to set the pace in European Champions Cup

Exeter boss Rob Baxter wants the Chiefs to be leading rather than chasing in this season's European Champions Cup.

Although Exeter reached the quarter-finals last term, they only qualified during the dying seconds on a dramatic last day of pool action.

The Chiefs had put themselves up against it by failing to secure any points from their opening fixture with the Ospreys.

And Baxter is keen for a flying start this time around, although it will not be straightforward, given that French Top 14 leaders Clermont Auvergne are first up at Sandy Park on Sunday, followed by by an appointment with Ulster in Belfast next Saturday.

Two of Exeter's group rivals this season - Clermont and Bordeaux-Begles - were also drawn with them in Europe last year, so the Chiefs know what is coming.

"A win in your first game is pretty important," Baxter said. "There are only six rounds of games, and as we saw last season, not getting a point at the Ospreys put us on the back foot immediately.

"Two teams picked up a win that weekend in our pool, and in theory, from then on they can stay in front of you. That makes it tough.

"You have to fly into your first couple of fixtures, and that gives you a chance to be a leader, but if you lose, you are a chaser. We will focus on being a leader after these two rounds.

"That will be a huge challenge, but why not set ourselves a huge challenge? That is what the Champions Cup is all about."

Exeter beat star-studded Clermont in the tournament last December, but then lost the return fixture 42-10 a week later in France, and Baxter is relishing the test provided by a team that has suffered just one defeat so far this season.

"We have beaten them once before, so it's not something we know we cannot achieve," he added. "Right now, it's probably quite good for us to have a new challenge and drop out of the Aviva Premiership for a little while.

"We have battled through the first block of the Premiership really well and showed some good qualities, but I think what we're still lacking a little bit is that doggedness and that little bit of determination to see things off.

"I want us to move on another level and decide to roll our sleeves up and get on with things."

Baxter makes six changes from the side held 27-27 at home by Gloucester last weekend, with Moray Low, Harry Williams, Damian Welch and Kai Horstmann called into the pack, while there are also starts for scrum-half Dave Lewis and centre Ollie Devoto.

Ulster begin their European season in Bordeaux on Sunday, with fly-half Paddy Jackson facing an intriguing battle opposite his Ireland rival Ian Madigan.

Jackson started Ireland's three summer Tests in South Africa, with Madigan on the bench after injury to front-line playmaker Johnny Sexton.

Madigan could find his Ireland chances limited by trading Leinster for Bordeaux in the summer, but Ulster's assistant coach Joe Barakat believes Jackson can lay down a strong Test claim in France this weekend.

"If you look at Paddy from last year to this year, physically he's almost grown from a boy to a man," Barakat said. "Physically, he's changed, and there is a lot of confidence that comes with that change as well.

"He is continuing to improve all the time, and you can't deny his impact on this Ulster team, the way he guides us around and what he demands from these players."

Munster, meanwhile, are also in action on Sunday, facing a testing mission against reigning French champions Racing 92 in Paris.


From Belfast Telegraph