Exeter Chiefs v Saracens: Key talking points for Aviva Premiership semi-final
By Emma Thurston and Louise Warr
Last Updated: 20/05/17 2:27pm
After the highs of the European finals our focus immediately switches back to domestic rugby and the culmination of the domestic seasons.
The two Premiership semi-finals take place on Saturday afternoon - Exeter and Saracens will meet at Sandy Park [2.30pm] before Wasps and Leicester Tigers duel at the Ricoh Arena [5.15pm].
With a place at Twickenham on the line we look through a few of the key talking points ahead from the first semi-final.
Will Exeter be able to stop Saracens or will the European champions march on towards a double-double?
You could be forgiven for thinking that it's only the back-to-back European champions, and reigning Premiership title holders, that know how to deliver when it comes to knockout matches.
In recent years Mark McCall's side have delivered masterclass after masterclass in managing knockout matches and domestically they've won five out of their eight semi-finals.
However, Rob Baxter's Exeter Chiefs aren't too shabby when it comes to handling semi-final pressure either - they've lost just one of their last eight last-four encounters in all competitions.
That last loss was back in the 2015 Challenge Cup and without question, they're a totally different outfit now to the one that they were then.
In short, both sides are fully aware of the levels that they need to reach in a knockout week and the intensity that arises on game day.
After productive and solid seasons from both teams, these are the weeks that count. Experience is king and both of the first semi-finalists have plenty of it.
Twelve months on…
Almost 12 months ago Exeter Chiefs found themselves 23-6 down at half-time in the 2016 Premiership final against Saracens.
Needless to say that opening 40 minutes of the 2016 final hadn't gone to plan and they were in a bit of trouble.
Tries from Jack Yeandle and Jack Nowell reduced the deficit back to three points yet you always wonder what could they have done had they not struggled so badly early on?
Rob Baxter has already made it clear that this time they are "automatically better prepared this season".
Why? Well because they've been there before as a group, and by that he means having already faced Saracens head-on in a winner-takes-all situation.
On Saturday afternoon they have to prove this and do so against a Saracens side that haven't stayed still.
Since May 2016 Saracens haven taken their game to a new level and breaking them down is a tough prospect. Just ask Clermont Auvergne about that one!
Different roads to the semi-final
While Saracens were embroiled in the Champions Cup final and everything that comes with such an occasion, the Exeter Chiefs will have enjoyed quality training time and even some time off.
The question is which road will type of preparation will helped and which will have hindered?
The challenge for Saracens is that they have to park history. They have just become only the fourth side ever to win back-to-back European titles - and yet they have to challenge themselves to almost pretend that it didn't happen and hit the semi-final as hard.
Conversely, the Exeter Chiefs will be coming into a vital training week refreshed and rejuvenated.
Jack Nowell will return to camp from the buzz of the British and Irish Lions training and the close-knit squad will thrive off his excitement surrounding that too.
The downside for the Chiefs is that they're not riding directly off the back of match momentum while Saracens have an outstanding European victory in their corner.
Sandy Park - can it be a factor?
Sandy Park is considered by many to be one of the best grounds in the competition and notoriously one that Premiership sides find it a tough to travel to.
The Chiefs thrive off the passion of their home fans and have lost just twice there this season in rounds two and seven.
The sticking point when it comes to home advantage is that Saracens really don't care if they're home or away, they deliver regardless.
The most recent encounter between these two sides at Sandy Park saw Mark McCall's team notch up five tries in a 34-13 victory.
Contextually that was back in September when the Chiefs were having a slow start but it further reinforces the point that Sandy Park is unlikely to provide Saracens any cause for concern at the moment.
Somehow when it comes to Saturday afternoon the Exeter Chiefs must find a way to capitalise on home advantage.
Munster were not able to make home-country advantage count a few weeks ago in the Champions Cup but by hook or by crook, Exeter must make Sandy Park a factor in this semi-final.
Head to head
This game is littered with mouth-watering head-to-head battles throughout one to 15 but there is sure to be sparks flying on the wing where Olly Woodburn and Chris Ashton face off.
It has been a season to remember for the Exeter wing, who has excelled in a pacy and attacking backline with many questioning his omission from the England squad to tour Argentina this summer.
He has crossed for 10 tries already this campaign, a number he will be looking to add to this weekend, and capped his stunning season with an Aviva Premiership player of the year nomination.
He will come up against another man not featuring on Eddie Jones' plans, the controversial figure of Ashton.
While many have questioned his defensive abilities in previous abilities in years gone by, nobody can deny the try-scoring talents of the man that will don the red and black of Toulon next season.
The 30-year-old secured his place in the history books last week becoming the leading try-scorer in top-flight European competition with 37 and will be looking to continue his rich vein of form when attentions turn back to domestic matters.
Exeter back-rowers Don Armand and Thomas Waldrom both return to action after injuries, while full-back Phil Dollman also features.
International backs Henry Slade and Michele Campagnaro are both on the bench after missing Exeter's win at Gloucester a fortnight ago.
Saracens captain Brad Barritt has been ruled out of the Sandy Park trip due to a leg injury, and is replaced in midfield by Duncan Taylor in the solitary change following last Saturday's memorable European Champions Cup final victory over Clermont Auvergne.
Fly-half Owen Farrell skippers a side that includes all six of Saracens' British and Irish Lions squad members.
Exeter Chiefs: 15 Phil Dollman, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Ian Whitten, 12 Ollie Devoto, 11 James Short, 10 Gareth Steenson (c), 9 Stuart Townsend; 1 Ben Moon, 2 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 3 Harry Williams, 4 Dave Dennis, 5 Geoff Parling, 6 Kai Horstmann, 7 Don Armand, 8 Thomas Waldrom.
Replacements: 16 Jack Yeandle, 17 Carl Rimmer, 18 Tomas Francis, 19 Mitch Lees, 20 Sam Simmonds, 21 Will Chudley, 22 Henry Slade, 23 Michele Campagnaro.
Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Duncan Taylor, 11 Chris Wyles, 10 Owen Farrell (c), 9 Richard Wigglesworth; 1 Mako Vunipola, 2 Jamie George, 3 Vincent Koch, 4 Maro Itoje, 5 George Kruis, 6 Michael Rhodes, 7 Jackson Wray, 8 Billy Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Schalk Brits, 17 Titi Lamositele, 18 Petrus Du Plessis, 19 Jim Hamilton, 20 Schalk Burger, 21 Ben Spencer, 22 Alex Lozowski, 23 Mike Ellery.