Ricky Pellow insists it will be healthy mix of ‘youth and experience’ that will lead Exeter Chiefs into battle ahead of tomorrow’s Anglo-Welsh Cup opener against Northampton Saints at Sandy Park (3pm).
With Premiership and European matters put on the back burner for the next fortnight, Devon’s finest will now be looking to continue their rich vein of form on a third front against the visiting Midlanders.
In a competition which has served the Chiefs well over the years - Exeter have played in the last three Cup finals, including defeating the Saints in 2014 to lift the trophy itself - skills coach Pellow is confident his team can start the campaign with a strong showing on home soil.
And buoyed by the fact that he has a glut of talent to select from, the Cornishman says he and his players are relishing the opportunity to go and attack from the outset.
“The Anglo-Welsh Cup is just another big piece in the jigsaw for us,” said Pellow, who once again has been entrusted by Director of Rugby Rob Baxter to oversee the running of the Chiefs in this competition.
“We say all the time that every competition we are in, we want to attack. It fits in well with where we are in the season, especially coming out of a tough few weeks in the Premiership and in Europe. Now, we’ve got a group of players who have been given a great opportunity to out, put a Chiefs shirt and produce a big performance.
“The mix of the side, whether it be the young guys coming or the more senior players, it’s a good blend for us. Over the years this is a competition we have loved to be part of, not just in terms of helping to blood young players or to get game time into others, but it’s served a real purpose in helping to develop the club as a whole.”
Pellow continued: “You only have to look back to last season with Sam Simmonds. He had two huge games in this competition towards the end of the season, then all of a sudden he was thrust into the Premiership squad and ended up playing in some huge games. Since then, he’s just built on that exposure and moved his game forward even more.
“That in itself shows to others that there is a stepping stone for them to move forward and that it’s not just about getting game minutes into players. What Rob and the other coaches stress is that if you play well in this competition, then you are going to thrust yourselves right into the selection mix for when we get back into the Premiership.”
And it’s that kind of incentive that Pellow believes will help drive his players ahead of their opening fixture against what will be a tough Saints outfit. The visitors - like the Chiefs - will no doubt rotate their playing stock ahead of kick-off, but with their second string producing a faultless campaign in the A League so far this season, the warning is there for the home side that it will no walk in the park for them.
“If you look at the A League right now, we’re top of the South group and Northampton are top of the North,” said Pellow. “Although we don’t know who they will pick at this stage, we know it’s going to be a tough game and that we will have to be at our best to stop them. That means we will need to be switched on from the outset and that our physicality has to be right up there to stop them getting any kind of foothold or momentum within the game.
“At the same time, I’m excited about how we want to play and how we want put our stamp on the game. Having that blend of youth and experience is going to be great for us and I’m looking forward to seeing what the boys can do at the weekend.”
Although tomorrow’s game comes too early for the likes of Dave Ewers and Luke Cowan-Dickie, who are edging ever closer to their playing returns, Pellow will be boosted by the fact that both Ollie Devoto and Sam Hill are fit enough to be included within the match-day squad.
As for the starting line-up, winger James Short and lock Ollie Atkins are the sole survivors from the team that took to the field at Sale Sharks last time out. Kai Horstmann skippers the side from No.8, while joining him in the back-row will be summer signings James Freeman and Matt Kvesic.
Freeman, along with winger Tom O’Flaherty, are both set to make their first-team debuts for the Chiefs, as is Exeter University student Sal M’Boge, who will start the contest at full-back.
On the bench, England international Jack Maunder also returns from a spell on the sidelines, while back-row forward Tom Lawday - currently on loan with the Cornish Pirates - will be looking to maintain his impressive form so far this season.
15 Sal M’Boge
14 Tom O’Flaherty
13 Tom Hendrickson
12 Ollie Devoto
11 James Short
10 Joe Simmonds
9 Will Chudley
1 Alec Hepburn
2 Elvis Taione
3 Moray Low
4 Ollie Atkins
5 Sam Skinner
6 James Freeman
7 Matt Kvesic
8 Kai Horstmann (capt)
16 Shaun Malton
17 Billy Keast
18 Marcus Street
19 Toby Salmon
20 Tom Lawday
21 Jack Maunder
22 Sam Morley
23 Sam Hill