Exeter boss Baxter wary of Saints side 'in a comfortable place'
Exeter Chiefs boss Rob Baxter knows Saints are 'in a comfortable place' - but he believes that could make them more dangerous at Franklin's Gardens on Sunday (kick-off 3pm).
Saints are sitting fifth, knowing that, with two games to go, they can't make the Gallagher Premiership play-offs this season.
The only thing to be decided is whether Chris Boyd's side will finish above sixth-placed Leicester Tigers, who are six points behind in the standings.
But Baxter knows how good Saints can be, as Exeter were beaten at home by the black, green and gold in February.
And he said: “Right now, they are kind of in a comfortable place and they know where they are. That can be both good and bad and I’m worried the good will come out on Sunday.
"They know they are in the top eight and Europe next season; they can’t get top four, yet they will probably want to be that next-best side, so the pressures of ‘what ifs’ around them losing somewhat disappear.
“They’ll be looking at Sunday and thinking they can have a say in the final shake-up and they’ll be looking at doing the double on us, having won down here at Sandy Park earlier in the season.
"In a lot of ways, there is a lot of things for them to wrap up into a positive performance.
"On the flip side, we are in that top four, still in the top two, and we want to have that home semi-final.
"For us, the driver of making sure of that we have to make as our biggest motivation to do well.
“For lots of reasons we want to be at home in the semi-finals and I think the fact that we can be in that place where we know how things work, how comfortable we can prepare for games, and the fact that we can play in front of friends and family, it has to be the key driver for us.
“If you look at our current group, a lot of these players have not played in those big occasions, so they know what it feels like physically and emotionally to get there and how you prepare for them.
"They understand what we do to make sure we put ourselves in the best position possible, but equally we have to guard against any kind of complacency just because we’ve been there before.
“If you look at the other three teams in the semi-finals, they haven’t been there for a while. For them, this is the biggest game coming up for them in a number of years.
"I know Bristol won in Europe last season and got to a semi-final and lost, but that will mean this year is an even bigger occasion for them.
"What we have to do is make sure we lockdown that the semi-final is our biggest game - and for us to do that, we have to take everything we can out of the Northampton and Sale games.”
Exeter will be in the play-offs yet again this season as they continue to show their relentless and ruthless side in the top tier of English rugby.
“To get to another semi-final obviously shows great consistency on our part,” said Baxter.
“We’ve been in five semi-finals now, all of which have been at home, and we want to keep that run going, especially now that we can get crowds back in.
“All the time we talk to the lads about getting to these final stages, playing in semi-finals and finals, and often they are played in good conditions.
"They may sound a little weird after what we played in at Twickenham last year, but on the whole it’s generally played out on firm pitches, good conditions and warm temperatures, so we have to be prepared to work hard.
“At this time of the season, we talk about challenging the guys about how they perform, what levels they can hit physically, and just how much they want to do things for one another.
"What I saw against Newcastle last weekend, I think underlined all of those qualities.”
Exeter beat Newcastle 74-3 last weekend and they look set to peak at the right time with the play-offs edging closer.
And Baxter believes his side's experience of the big occasion can help them secure more silverware.
“That experience obviously helps a lot,” he added. “But what I can also see is that the players are getting more excited and that they are taking over more and more and really starting to drive things.
"Just things little things at the end of training, little points they are making, they are all focus points which indicate we are in a good place.
“The biggest one for me, however, is that they look ready to run. If I see that, then I know we are in a good place.
"You didn’t need to be a genius last week to see that the game was done and dusted pretty much at half time, yet the guys could have gone out in the second half and tried to conserve energy.
"That wouldn’t have made us a better team, nor would it allow us to see what levels they could hit.
“Instead, the guys continued to work hard for one another and because of that we’ve come out of that game physically better and more prepare for what will be another hard game this weekend.
"As I said, when I see the guys are ready to run, it means that we can deal with any opposition game plan. If they want it to be a kick chase battle, we can cater for that.
"If it’s an open, attacking game, then we’ve got that in our legs - or if it’s an attritional game, again we have it in us to lock in and work hard, knowing our lungs are going to blow.”