Rob Baxter targets second term in Heineken Cup
ROB Baxter hopes his Exeter Chiefs players can use the lessons learned from this season's Heineken Cup campaign to propel them into the competition next term.
The Sandy Park outfit brought the curtain down on their maiden adventure into Europe's top club competition with an impressive display in a 29-20 defeat against three-time winners Leinster on Saturday.
That saw them finish third in Pool Five, with a record of two wins and four defeats.
Now that they have had a taste of the competition, Baxter hopes his players are determined to get back there again and earn the right to mix it with Europe's elite once more.
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"The big challenge for us now is we have to use this Heineken Cup campaign to make us a better Premiership side and make sure we're here again," said Baxter.
"We've got some tough Premiership games coming up and we have to perform well in them to make sure we get the opportunity to play Heineken Cup rugby again.
"That's ultimately what this year is all about. It's about experiencing something, but now we've experienced it we've got to relish it and want to be back there again.
"What I want my players to think about is to want to have another go at Leinster, have another go at Clermont. To do that we have to perform in the Premiership."
The strength of the Leinster side that faced the Chiefs is highlighted by the fact that 18 of the 23 players in their squad were this week included in a 45-man Ireland training squad for the Six Nations. Two of the other five are non-Irish and another is now injured.
That is one of the reasons why Baxter rates Saturday's display as his side's best against the top two teams – Leinster and Clermont Auvergne – in the pool.
"I thought it was our best performance against one of the best two teams in the pool," he confirmed.
"Although over in Dublin (a 9-6 loss) we obviously had them in more trouble and were closer on the scoreboard, there was a reality about some of the players they had missing and how long they'd had some players back from their international break periods.
"Last Saturday that was a pretty much full-strength Leinster team going absolutely flat-out to win a game at the business part of the season for those guys. It was the last pool game in the Heineken and it's running into the Six Nations for a lot of their Irish internationals.
"We were hugely competitive in a lot of areas for much of the game, so that's pleasing."
It wasn't a great start for the Chiefs as Leinster crossed for an easy try in the fourth minute as they created a big overlap on the right but centre Gordon D'Arcy didn't need to use it as he stepped inside and cantered over. Ireland teammate Jonathan Sexton converted.
If that wasn't bad enough, Exeter also lost star flanker Tom Johnson early on with a knee injury.
However, they soon got back on level terms as hooker Neil Clark drove through a maul to surge over the line and Gareth Steenson added the extras.
The visitors went back into the lead after being camped on Exeter's line for six minutes, with Lions full-back Rob Kearney going over in the right corner.
Once again the Chiefs hit back, with a 14-man maul from a line-out being taken down to earn a penalty try, which Steenson converted.
The fly-half added a penalty late in the half to give his side a 17-12 lead at the break but that was soon overturned.
Former Lions skipper Brian O'Driscoll finished off from close range before Ireland skipper Jamie Heaslip powered over from the base of a scrum.
Sexton added the extras to both tries as Leinster led 26-17 after 53 minutes.
Exeter ended the game strongly and won a series of penalties before Steenson put one over to cut the deficit to six points. But after Ben White was yellow carded, Sexton kicked a penalty of his own to secure the win. Isaac Boss was also sin-binned late on but it made no difference to the result.
Exeter can certainly be proud of their first foray into the Heineken Cup as they beat the Scarlets twice, gave Leinster a scare in both matches and fared well against title favourites Clermont Auvergne.