Exeter up against it as Champions Cup hopes hang by a thread
Gloucester can go ahead of Munster with victory over English rivals on Friday
Gerbrandt Grobler of Gloucester Rugby beats Sam Skinner of Exeter Chiefs to the ball in the lineout last weekend. Photograph: Alex Davidson/Getty Images
Gloucester v Exeter (7.45pm, Kingsholm Stadium, BT Sport)
With Gloucester trying to overhaul Munster at the top of Pool Two, Exeter go into Friday night’s contest between the two English sides knowing their misfiring Heineken Champions Cup campaign will fizzle out if they fail to win.
Despite losing just once in the English Premiership this season, Exeter have failed to win from their three Champions Cup starts. Last Saturday’s home defeat against Gloucester left them adrift at the Pool Two basement.
And even bonus point victories over Gloucester, Castres and Munster - two of those games, including the trip to Thomond Park, are away from home - between now and mid-January might not be enough to progress.
The likelihood is another pool stage exit for Exeter, although they are not giving up the ghost. “As I’ve said before, the Heineken Champions Cup has lots of challenges,” Chiefs rugby director Rob Baxter said. “If you want to win it, you have to try and learn something from every game you play in.
“We not only have to keep the competition alive, but we have to learn from the games and commit ourselves for the full 80 minutes. What we actually have to do is use the disappointment of last weekend to make us better as a team, because there are still three rounds left and 15 points to get.
“We got dented a couple of times last week, and that knocked us out of our stride. Some of that is down to us not performing at the level of intensity we need to be at, and some of that is down to the good work Gloucester put in when they had possession.”
Outhalf Joe Simmonds starts at full-back, while Jack Maunder wears the number nine shirt, props Alec Hepburn and Tomas Francis return, and there are back-row opportunities for Sean Lonsdale and Tom Lawday.
Gloucester are second in the group, three points behind Munster who are not in action until Saturday evening, and head coach Johan Ackermann said: “It will obviously be good for our campaign to back up last week with a win and give ourselves a possibility of progressing in the competition.
“But, having analysed the game, we know that it’s not going to be easy, there is still much for us to improve on and a lot of hard work we need to do.
“We also know that we will be up against a side who are very motivated to bounce back.”
Gloucester: Jason Woodward; Charlie Sharples, Billy Twelvetrees, Owen Williams, Ollie Thorley; Danny Cipriani, Willi Heinz; Josh Hohneck, Jaco Visagie, Fraser Balmain; Ed Slater, Franco Mostert; Freddie Clarke, Gareth Evans, Ben Morgan. Replacements: Henry Walker, Alex Seville, Ciaran Knight, Gerbrandt Grobler, Alex Craig, Callum Braley, Matt Banahan, Tom Hudson,
Exeter Chiefs: Joe Simmonds; Santiago Cordero, Ian Whitten, Sam Hill, Tom O’Flaherty; Gareth Steenson, Jack Maunder; Alec Hepburn, Jack Yeandle, Tom Francis; Dave Dennis, Sam Skinner; Sean Lonsdale, Don Armand, Tom Lawday. Replacements: Elvis Taione, Ben Moon, Harry Williams, Mitch Lees, Wilhelm Van Der Sluys, Sam Maunder, Ollie Devoto, Phil Dollman.
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France)