With just two points separating last season’s champions and the Chiefs at the summit of the table, the stakes are certainly high for both clubs as they reach the halfway point of the domestic season.
Buoyed by their bonus point victory at Worcester Warriors last time out, the Devon club will not only be looking to build on that success, but at the same time inflict a blow of their own on the Londoners, who battled back from 13-0 down against Bath a week ago to triumph 19-13 at Allianz Park.
Although both sides are without key personnel due to injuries and Six Nations call-ups, Exeter forwards coach Hunter believes there is still enough talent on display to serve up a Sunday feast.
“It’s a big game, a top of the table clash,” he said. “Sometimes you have to pinch yourself and remember that although it feels later in the year, it’s still only the halfway point of the season and there’s still a lot of rugby to be played between now and the end of the season.
“On one hand you don’t want to get too tied up with the fact that it’s first versus second, but on the other hand it’s a fantastic position to be in because if we win, we go top and that’s a great position to be in.”
Having negotiated recent weeks without a flurry of their key names, the injury status is improving for the Chiefs, who last weekend welcomed back both Luke Cowan-Dickie and Sam Hill after spells out. Elsewhere, Dave Ewers, Damian Welch and Mitch Lees are also continuing their rehab programmes, whilst the sight of Henry Slade running on grass this week was another boost, even though the England star is still a least six weeks away from a competitive return.
As well as those on the sidelines, the Chiefs will also have to contend without the likes of Tomas Francis, Michele Campagnaro and Jack Nowell over the coming weeks as they have all been included in Six Nations squads for their respective countries.
But like the Chiefs, Saracens are also without a glut of big-name players due to internationals, injuries and, in the case of winger Chris Ashton, a 10-week suspension which was this week upheld on appeal.
Even without such talent, Hunter is well aware of the threat the Londoners pose to Exeter’s 13-month long unbeaten home record this weekend.
“Are they are full strength? Probably not,” he conceded. “But at the same time you can say they still have a lot of quality in depth within their squad. Whatever side they put out, you know they will always be very well prepared. They are massively professional in what they do and they are fantastically coached.
“Mark McCall is one of the best head coaches in the Premiership and he brings together his team and his coaches in a way that is very impressive. Regardless of who they put out onto the field on Sunday, we know they will be a tough side to play against.”
Equally, Hunter believes the Chiefs will be just as tough for Sarries to overcome, adding: “There will be others out there asking is this the best time to play Exeter Chiefs when we have all of our guys missing as well? As I said, I think whoever takes to the pitch this weekend, it’s going to be one helluva game.”
Although victorious at Sixways last Sunday, the Chiefs have made five changes to their starting XV for this weekend’s tussle. Skipper Jack Yeandle - who missed out against Worcester due to illness - returns in a front-row that also sees recalls for props Ben Moon and Moray Low.
Elsewhere in the pack, Ollie Atkins is given the nod in the second row alongside Geoff Parling, while behind Sam Hill fills the void in midfield left by the absent Campagnaro.
On the bench, Harry Williams is brought in as tight-head cover, while Lewis Stevenson - who recently re-joined the club from Ulster - gets his first involvement. The only other change sees Max Bodilly brought in as cover for the back division.
With personnel in place and last week’s games reviewed extensively, Hunter is hopeful that the Chiefs can maintain their winning formula at home.
“We’ve set some high standards this season, especially here at home,” said Hunter. “That, however, comes with better squads and spending more time together. People will talk about discipline, but from our perspective it’s not just about giving penalties away in games.
“It’s also about how you catch and pass and you’re discipline in how you move about and where you put yourself on the pitch. I think our standards are increasing each year in that and it’s very much driven by what the players do and what they want to achieve as a group. You have got to have those standards in order to get bonus points away from home, like we did last week at Worcester.”
Certainly more of the same will be craved this weekend in a game which is heading towards yet another Sandy Park sell-out.
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