As defending champions of the Gallagher Premiership and Heineken Champions Cup, Rob Baxter is acutely aware his Exeter Chiefs side have a huge target on their backs this season.
It’s a challenge, however, that the Devonians are clear relishing with the Chiefs’ Director of Rugby this week exuding a real air of excitement ahead of tomorrow night’s opener away to Harlequins (7:45pm).
“We’re looking forward to Friday, but so we should be,” said Baxter. “People will say it’s going to be tough for us having a short break, but I actually think not having that lengthy period off may work for us, because we’ve just been able to come straight back into things.
“As I said to the players, this is the shortest Premiership season you will play, yet it comes off them having the longest off period and pre-season in their careers last season. Hopefully, that never happens again, but with the work the guys put in, we were in great shape when we came back from lockdown.
“After that, none of them really over-played, they all had rest periods, and they’ve had a two-week break leading into this new season. For all of us, this is an exciting time and I expect the guys to throw everything into Friday’s game. At the end of the day, we’re champions of England, so it would be criminal if we didn’t throw everything into it.”
In what will be a testing Round One assignment for the defending champions, Baxter will go into the contest minus a glut of star names, either away on Autumn Nations Cup duty or sidelined following close-season surgery.
Jack Nowell (toe) and Jacques Vermeulen (shoulder) are both sidelined until the New Year, while fellow finalists Stuart Hogg, Jonny Gray, Sam Skinner, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne (all Scotland), Henry Slade and Jonny Hill (both England) and Tomas Francis (Wales) are also missing.
On the plus side, though, Luke Cowan-Dickie has recovered sufficiently from minor knee surgery to take his place on the bench, while England team-mate Harry Williams is included in the starting line-up having been released by Eddie Jones from his training squad preparing for Saturday’s clash with Ireland at Twickenham.
Baxter will be delighted to have as much senior experience on the field as possible against a Harlequins side, who in the corresponding fixture last season, snuck a thriller 34-30 thanks to a last-minute penalty try.
“I’ll be honest, I didn’t anticipate having four away with Scotland, but that’s great reward for all of those guys,” said Baxter. “Also, we expected a few in the EPS squad and obviously Tom Francis with Wales, but it does mean others will get an opportunity. Obviously, we gave games to guys at the end of last season and I’m glad we picked them. It gave us a chance to look at strengths and weaknesses - and also look at different combinations.
“That said, we’ve still got a strong group of senior, experienced players and we want to get as many of them onto the field on Friday night. A lot of them had good game time towards the end of the season, they’re pretty much match-ready, and they know what it takes to turn up and produce an Exeter Chiefs performance, full of vigour, full of fight, and ready to work hard.
“I say it every year, the Premiership is a tough place and you need to be ready every week.”
Indeed, part of the process for the Chiefs will be on ensuring they hit the new season running against the Londoners.
“When I look back at last season, I’ve got to give the players a huge amount of credit for the commitment they showed throughout the course of the season,” added Baxter. “Now, we have to sit down and lay it out again - whereby we say to the players that everything they do from now will add up to creating something at the end of the season.
“That’s the truth. The guys will know that, but we’re not going to expect they know it. As a coaching group we’re going to reinforce it, reinforce it and reinforce it again. If you want to win trophies come the end of the season, you turn up on Friday night!
“It’s not a must-win game, but it doesn’t half help make a difference at the end of the season. As a team who wants to win things, you need to be fighting to the death in every game for every point because they can be the difference between first or second, top four, qualifying for Europe, or taking a bit of pressure off you if you need to. Once a team understands that - and I think our guys do - you give yourself a platform. Right here and now, all you can do is build the foundation for the season ahead.”
15 Facundo Cordero
14 Tom O’Flaherty
13 Ian Whitten
12 Ollie Devoto
11 Olly Woodburn
10 Joe Simmonds
9 Jack Maunder
1 Alec Hepburn
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Harry Williams
4 Will Witty
5 Don Armand
6 Dave Ewers
7 Jannes Kirsten
8 Sam Simmonds
16 Luke Cowan-Dickie
17 Ben Moon
18 Marcus Street
19 Tom Price
20 Richard Capstick
21 Stu Townsend
22 Harvey Skinner
23 Tom Hendrickson