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BILL SOBEY: Challenge at Leinster is made for Chiefs

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: October 13, 2012

Exeter Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter was right to be confident ahead of his side's trip to face Leinster today    picture: Mat Mingo/Pinnacle

Exeter Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter was right to be confident ahead of his side's trip to face Leinster today picture: Mat Mingo/Pinnacle

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If Exeter Chiefs play with the bravery we have come to expect, there is every reason to believe their Heineken Cup debut could be a special one this weekend.

The cautious predictions are easy to justify. The Devon club are away to the reigning European champions and Leinster have not lost at home in Europe since 2009.

More than that, the Irish side have won the competition in three of the last four seasons and could become the first side to make it three in a row with success this term.

They have a team referred to by pundits as "the All Blacks of the northern hemisphere", they are favourites to top the "group of death" also containing Scarlets, Clermont Auvergne and Chiefs.

And yet, despite the overwhelming evidence on paper, the Chiefs have one crucial element in their favour – human nature.

In competitions with structures such as the Heineken Cup, in any sport, it is rare for the favourites to start at anything more than a canter.

Within their current batch of fixtures, Leinster will undoubtedly see Exeter as the weak point, following Munster last week and Scarlets away next week.

Their squad is full of players who rise to the big occasion and while today's game against the Chiefs is a historic day for the visitors, it is merely the first step on a long journey for the hosts.

Leinster's former Wasps scrum-half Eion Reddan seems more wary of an upset than most and he suggests the timing of this fixture might suit Chiefs.

"If ever there's a danger this is it," he said. "A few years ago we were Heineken Cup champions and we lost to London Irish, and I do think this is a big game for the English clubs because of the way their season is structured.

"They hit the ground running at the start of September, they iron out a few creases and they're flying now. Our season starts a bit differently."

You don't become multiple Europe champions without being able to overcome such hurdles, or without being able to motivate yourself for the big games, the small games and everything in between.

But this really is not the best week for Leinster to take on the sort of challenge Chiefs invariably bring.

Their injury list is considerable. Brian O'Driscoll rolled his ankle last weekend but starts, as does Isa Nacewa (dead leg), Kevin McLaughlin (hyper-extended elbow) and Andrew Conway (stinger).

The Chiefs will have to test Leinster in ways they are not expecting. Leinster head coach Joe Schmidt might have been playing games this week, but his comments showed only surface knowledge of Chiefs' capabilities.

"We do not know that much about Exeter," he admitted. "They are a really positive outfit and in Ignacio Mieres they have a fine fly-half who can vary the team's game as necessary.

"Centre Jason Shoemark is another in top form and Wallaby Dean Mumm – a very athletic lock and genuine international-class player – has now arrived at the club and is sure to be a big player for them."

Mieres and Mumm will not start this weekend while Shoemark perhaps came to his mind because of the two tries he scored against Harlequins last weekend.

How much do Leinster want it this weekend? It is the first game of the group stage, important but not entirely crucial. They will be focused on peaking for this year's final in Dublin.

If Exeter play to their potential and make a good start, anything can happen. They can play without pressure or expectation.

Head coach Rob Baxter's refusal to accept his side as underdogs this weekend is pleasing and shows the level of ambition and confidence at the club. Today's massive challenge in Dublin is made for the Chiefs.

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