Lifting their first-ever European crown in front of an empty stadium wasn’t quite how the Exeter Chiefs had envisaged celebrating their greatest triumph, but on Sunday Rob Baxter’s side will kick-off their title defence with a small section of supporters back inside Sandy Park.
For the first time since March, there will be a match-day buzz about the place as the Chiefs prepare to welcome back 2,000 of their season ticket holders for the visit of Glasgow Warriors (3:15pm) in Round One of the Heineken Champions Cup.
The Covid-19 outbreak around the world has meant supporters have been stuck at home, having to watch their heroes perform as usual to empty arenas, which so often are the lifeblood of any club.
In a strange way, teams have got used to what has become the ‘new norm’ – but for Baxter, the Chiefs’ Director of Rugby, this is a seminal moment and a clear indication that, hopefully, things are starting to move in the right direction.
“We’re going to have to chat about the fans coming back in,” he said. “It’s going to be different and we have to make sure it’s not a distraction. The lads have kind of got used to going into their own zone with each other and just focusing on the game at hand. They’ll still have to do that, but they’ll need to be aware that there will be distractions about the place now.
“Having fans back, albeit only 2,000 this weekend, is great news and as a team we have to make sure we play in a way that generates that energy amongst the crowd that we can then feed off. If you do that, then it will help you massively. Equally, when you go away, the task will be to try and quieten down the crowd.”
For the lucky 2,000 supporters, Sunday’s showdown will offer them their first opportunity to salute Baxter’s double-winning side of last season. Claiming both the European and English titles in the same season was a huge achievement, but it was only a starting point for the Chiefs, who have made no secret of their desire to add to their haul this time round.
Having kicked off their Gallagher Premiership defence with maximum hauls from their opening three games against Harlequins, Bath and Leicester Tigers, now the attention switches to the visit of Danny Wilson’s Warriors side.
The two clubs have engaged in European battle on numerous occasions in recent years and Baxter is aware of the threat posed by the visitors who, like the Chiefs, will be buoyed by the return of their international stars following the culmination of the recent Autumn Nations Cup.
“It’s been a great few weeks,” added Baxter. “Watching the squad we have here play so well and front up like they have, it’s been amazing. I can’t congratulate them enough for the way in which they’ve started the new season. Now, we’ve got the international lads coming in as well for the first time and you can see there is a fantastic mood within the camp moving into what is this first game in the Champions Cup.
“As I’ve said a few times this week, you can feel a real air of excitement amongst the group and with us starting our defence at home, with a crowd in for the first time in a long time, there are lots of reasons for us to get excited. However, being excited is one thing, but what we have to do in these next few days is knuckle down and direct all of that energy in the right way. That is what we did last year, we set our stall our from game one [against La Rochelle] and that’s what we must do again this year.”
With his international stars back in harness, plus the core group performing so well in the Premiership, Baxter admitted selection for Sunday’s game was a real headache.
“To be fair, that was probably one of the toughest selections we’ve had for some time,” added Baxter. “As you said, the guys have fronted up week in, week out in that opening block of the Premiership and it’s built us a great foundation from which to build.
“I know every player in our squad wants to be involved in games like this weekend, so with the international lads coming back as well, people are going to miss out. That’s tough, I know that, but we do have a group of players here who do understand things and who are not that naïve to look back and see that some of those guys coming back, are the same guys who helped us lift two Cups at the end of last season.
“They understand that, but equally it’s my job and that of the coaches to make sure they also realise the important roles they have to play. For those internationals coming back in, they’ll know they have to perform to the levels that make them an international, because if they don’t, it will be an easy decision to rotate those players back in again. If anything, the pressure is on those international players to show why they are at the very top end of the game.”
Of those returning from international duty, four of them slot straight back into the Chiefs starting line-up. Stuart Hogg and Jonny Gray, both former Warriors players, are in at full-back and lock, while Henry Slade and Sam Skinner also get the nod from the outset. On the bench, England duo Luke Cowan-Dickie and Jonny Hill, as does Scotland’s Sam Hidalgo-Clyne.
15 Stuart Hogg
14 Olly Woodburn
13 Henry Slade
12 Ollie Devoto
11 Tom O'Flaherty
10 Joe Simmonds
9 Jack Maunder
1 Alec Hepburn
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Harry Williams
4 Jonny Gray
5 Sam Skinner
6 Dave Ewers
7 Jacques Vermeulen
8 Sam Simmonds
16 Luke Cowan-Dickie
17 Ben Moon
18 Marcus Street
19 Jonny Hill
20 Richard Capstick
21 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne
22 Harvey Skinner
23 Ian Whitten