The waiting is over and it’s back to the hard yards for Rob Baxter and his Exeter Chiefs side as they prepare to welcome Leicester Tigers to Sandy Park in Round One of this season’s Gallagher Premiership tomorrow (4:30pm).
In what will be the Devon club’s ninth season in English rugby’s top flight, expectations levels will again be high as the Chiefs look to again cement themselves amongst the division’s frontrunners in the title race
Having lifted the Premiership back in May 2017 with an extra-time victory over Wasps, the Chiefs again found themselves back at Twickenham in May having advanced through to the season showpiece with a best-ever points haul - and the knowledge that they had finished the regular season eight points clear of their closest rivals.
In the capital sunshine, however, there was to be no repeat of the previous year as a star-studded Saracens claimed the spoils, sinking Baxter’s men for a second time in three years.
Although a mightily tough pill to swallow for Baxter and his young charges, the Chiefs have regrouped this summer, determined to again establish themselves as the side to beat in terms of the domestic game.
With little change in personnel - other than the arrival of Wales and British Lions winger Alex Cuthbert and the elevation of a number of the club’s highly-rated academy rookies - it’s been a settled Chiefs squad that have reconvened ahead of the new campaign.
Undone narrowly by the Cornish Pirates 29-21 in their opening pre-season test, the Chiefs have since bounced back to record notable victories over Pro14 sides Cardiff Blues (38-10) and Munster (12-0) in the past fortnight.
Those latter successes, plus some significant work put in on the training ground, has ensured the Chiefs will head into tomorrow’s clash with the Tigers in fine fettle.
“It’s been a tough summer, but that’s what you’d expect,” said Head Coach Ali Hepher. “It’s been brutal at times for the guys, but now their itching to get out there and play some games. All of them have worked incredibly hard and got themselves in great shape, but now the challenge is transferring that physical and mental work out onto the pitch this Saturday.”
Hepher acknowledged the three pre-season fixtures had offered a great deal to not only the players in terms of game time, but also to the coaching staff, who were able to highlight not only the positives, but also the negatives.
“The Pirates game in particular was a hugely important game for us,” added Hepher. “Not just because it highlighted one or two things that we had to work on, but it allowed us to address things overnight - and you saw in the performance the next day against Cardiff how we sorted certain elements.
“Last week against Munster it was another step up again. In the first half we showed what we could do in terms of our attack, then in the second half the guys really dug deep in terms of defence and were able to hold them out. It would have been easy for the players in that second half to just switch off for a minute and let them in, but to a man they didn’t and we got our rewards by all of them doing that.
“As coaches, we’re pleased with where we are heading into the new season. However, there’s also that little bit of not knowing what all the other teams are like at this stage. As a squad we’re excited about the new season and it’s now up to the players to go out, max out in everything they do - whether that’s training or in games - and bring everything to the table.
“If the guys do that and show the attitude and the fight each week, then good performances will follow for sure. You then know over the course of the season that if you keep turning in those top quality performances, more often than not you’ll win plenty of games of rugby.”
However, standing in the way of the Chiefs first up will be a Leicester Tigers outfit, who themselves are still licking their wounds having narrowly missed out on a top four finish last season at the hands of surprise package Newcastle Falcons.
Hepher knows from his own playing days the threat carried by the East Midlanders, who still remain the most successful club side in the competition, having won the league title on ten previous occasions.
“Look, they’ve got international quality players across the board,” warned Hepher. “They’ve got a strong squad this year and they had the same last year. We know they will be well prepared and, as is the case every time you play Leicester, they’ll be up for a physical confrontation.
“Our lads, I know, are excited for the challenge, but they also have to be ready to go out there at the weekend and look to put out game on them from the very first minute. Our commitment and our physicality has to be there from the off because that’s where the game will be won and lost.”
Although the Chiefs will be missing the likes of Cuthbert, Jack Nowell and Mitch Lees, all of whom have undergone summer surgery, it’s still a powerful array of talent that will take to the field tomorrow for the hosts, who are starting a Premiership season on home turf for the first time since 2012.
Club captain Jack Yeandle heads up a beefy pack that includes international stars such as Alec Hepburn, Tomas Francis, Don Armand, Sam Simmonds and Matt Kvesic, the latter of whom has really impressed during pre-season.
Behind, Nic White and Gareth Steenson provide an experienced half-back axis, while Ian Whitten is joined in the centre by fit-again Ollie Devoto. The back three is made up of Olly Woodburn, Santiago Cordero and Phil Dollman.
On the bench, there is also plenty of experienced cover in the shape of front-row trio Greg Holmes, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Harry Williams, while there is a first-ever inclusion in a Premiership squad for Sean Lonsdale. Playmakers Joe Simmonds and Henry Slade are also waiting in the wings should they be needed by Baxter.
15 Phil Dollman
14 Santiago Cordero
13 Ian Whitten
12 Ollie Devoto
11 Olly Woodburn
10 Gareth Steenson
9 Nic White
1 Alec Hepburn
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Tomas Francis
4 Ollie Atkins
5 Sam Skinner
6 Don Armand
7 Matt Kvesic
8 Sam Simmonds
16 Luke Cowan-Dickie
17 Greg Holmes
18 Harry Williams
19 Toby Salmon
20 Sean Lonsdale
21 Stu Townsend
22 Joe Simmonds
23 Henry Slade
Member since: 5th January 2016
Hi, I am Mark Stevens, Media and Communications Manager for the Exeter Chiefs