After weeks in the planning, Exeter Chiefs will kick-off the defence of their Aviva Premiership crown with a testing trip to Gloucester tomorrow (7:45pm).
By the time they run out at Kingsholm, 97 days will have passed since Jack Yeandle and Gareth Steenson lifted English Rugby’s top prize proudly above their heads following their extra-time victory over Wasps at Twickenham.
It heralded the greatest hour to date in the proud history of the Devon club, who having been crowned champions, now have it all to do as their rivals look upon themselves as the prized scalp of the division.
Director of Rugby, Rob Baxter, is well aware of what lies ahead for his team, but he is confident his Chiefs can cope with the pressure to deliver, as well as kick-on yet further in their pursuit of further honours this term.
“In a lot of ways Friday’s a really good fixture for us,” said Baxter. “I always think Gloucester is a fantastic place to play, a great atmosphere and the supporters up there are very good natured in the right kind of way.
“The one thing we’ve talked about this week is about taking the pressure off ourselves a little bit. One of the most important qualities we’ve shown as a side over the years is that we really enjoy what we do. That means to enjoy certain things, you have to set some pretty good standards. You have to be willing to work hard and give games a lot of physical and emotional energy.
“I want to talk about us going up there to celebrate some good things. We are not going to be a team that’s scared of losing a game or scared of what people will say if we don’t win just because we were the champions last year – that’s not what it’s about for me.
“Instead, I want us to go up there, throw some punches, get ourselves into the game and see what playing in the Premiership is like when you are currently the top team in England.”
In what will be the first of 22 scheduled rounds in this season’s Aviva Premiership, it’s a decent first hit out for the Chiefs, who having beaten both the Cornish Pirates and Dragons in pre-season, came unstuck narrowly at Cardiff Blues in their final warm-up clash last Friday night.
Baxter, though, is relishing the challenges and the pressure that lie ahead, adding: “You have to be excited about the challenge. It should be really exciting to be the big boys that other teams are trying to knock over. You work extremely hard to be involved in teams like that, so you can either thrive on that or you can feel a little bit of pressure.
“Also, I think people need to remember that the previous year we were runners-up in the Premiership, so we actually finished second that year. It wasn’t like we were going to teams last season who would’ve gone ‘It’s only Exeter’. I think that’s been and gone for a few years, so in a way it is important to talk about the fact we are champions.
‘That said, will it mean the other teams try any harder against us than they did last year? To be honest, I think that will be a very negative thing to say about the opposition because I think they tried very hard against us last year – and a lot of times we were good enough to cope with that threat.
“The important thing is that in terms of our performance, we have to at least match where were last year, although in reality we must look to move our levels of performance on again. Other teams will be doing that, so we have to do that as well. The challenge isn’t necessarily that we are champions, the challenge is we have to be prepared to work just as hard, if not harder, than last year.”
Although Baxter has added six new faces to the playing ranks at Sandy Park in the summer, only one – Aussie scrum-half Nic White – makes the starting XV for tomorrow’s encounter. Fellow newcomer and former Cherry & Whites favourite, Matt Kvesic, is named among the Exeter replacements.
Elsewhere, it’s a fairly settled look to the visiting line-up with nine of tomorrow’s starters having also run out from the outset in May’s Grand Final at HQ.
Having that experience in tow will be key for the Chiefs, who will certainly be looking to ensure they don’t start this campaign as they did 12 months ago.
Baxter added: “Last year it took us a little while to come to terms with the fact that if you lose a Premiership final, you should only be talking about winning one. Now, having won the final, as a team we have to be comfortable about winning it again. Teams are very fluid things. They’re like animals, they grow and they change, so it will be interesting to see how we grow and change in the situation we find ourselves in.
“As I said, we worked extremely hard to win the Premiership. Now, if you want to win the Premiership again, you have to want to deal with the seasons that follow it. Some of our players will thrive on that, some of them will take a little while to get used to it. However, I am sure that over the course of the season, we will come through very strongly again.”
15 Phil Dollman
14 Olly Woodburn
13 Henry Slade
12 Ian Whitten
11 Max Bodilly
10 Gareth Steenson
9 Nic White
1 Ben Moon
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Harry Williams
4 Ollie Atkins
5 Jonny Hill
6 Dave Dennis
7 Don Armand
8 Sam Simmonds
16 Elvis Taione
17 Carl Rimmer
18 Tomas Francis
19 Sam Skinner
20 Matt Kvesic
21 Jack Maunder
22 Jack Nowell
23 Lachie Turner
Member since: 5th January 2016
Hi, I am Mark Stevens, Media and Communications Manager for the Exeter Chiefs