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The View from the South West

The View from the South West

Ahead of Saturday’s Aviva Premiership opener at Sandy Park, we take a look at Media chat in our opponents’ patch.

From This is Devon:

HISTORY is on Exeter Chiefs’ side as they prepare to start their third campaign in the Aviva Premiership this Saturday.
Rob Baxter’s men have won both of their opening encounters in the last two seasons, 30-28 at Leicester last time around and 22-10 against Gloucester in their first ever game in the top flight.

The Chiefs have also won all four of their Premiership matches against Sale, who make the trip to Sandy Park on the opening weekend of this season.

Head coach Baxter knows the good starts his side have enjoyed in the recent past have served them well, but he knows victory over the new-look Sharks will not make or break their season.

He said: “We’ve enjoyed our two seasons in the Premiership but they have been helped by us getting some points on the board early on which has meant we’ve not been looking over our shoulders at potential relegation battles for a long time in both seasons.

“That’s good, but is it the be-all and end-all? No, and that’s why you don’t create a scenario where winning that first game of rugby is all that matters. You have to be a very competitive team over the course of the whole season.

“An example is Wasps. They beat the team that had won the whole thing (Saracens) in the first game of last season and it didn’t get any easier for them.

“We’re aware it’s not all about this one game, but we also know a good performance at home and getting some points on the board gets you off the mark and makes building the season easier.”

Two years ago Exeter were written off by all and sundry ahead of their maiden top-flight campaign, while many pundits also tipped them to struggle last time around.

After finishing fifth last term – one place higher than Sale – the Sandy Park outfit are now a more accepted part of the elite.

Not that Baxter is starting to get comfy with Exeter’s position among the top dozen teams in the country. He is wary of feeling too settled as he knows that could lead to Exeter’s comeuppance.

“When you do get a little relaxed, that’s the time it can kill you,” he said. “You can’t cruise through a Premiership season, it’s just too tough and too challenging for that.

“You have to almost never be comfortable. It doesn’t matter how long you’re in the Premiership for, you have to be looking at it as a fantastic challenge that you have to meet head-on.

“That suits us. That’s the kind of group of players we’ve got.

“Nothing has changed for us now that we are in our third season, we just have to keep learning lessons and improving as players.”

One area Baxter would like his side to improve on as a whole this term is their home form.

Last season’s fifth place was built around their great away form in the second half of the campaign, when they won four matches on the spin on their travels. That saw Exeter end with an equal six away wins to their six at home.

But Baxter said it was not as simple as just targeting winning more matches at home this time around.

“What we tend to do quite well here as coaches is stop and say ‘we’d like to win more home games, what do we need to work on to see if that can potentially happen?'” he said.

“We’ve spent more time working on our attitude and the way we want to approach the games at home rather than targeting a certain amount of points from x number of wins.

“Your supporters don’t create the atmosphere, they’re there to live and thrive on what the team can produce

Chiefs’ hooker Chris Whitehead  featured on the Exeter Chiefs website, looking to the challenges ahead, starting on Saturday

No sooner had the Chiefs touched back down in Devon from their win in Scotland than Whitehead and his team-mates were already engaging in their pre-match prep ahead of Saturday’s visit of the Sharks, who have bolstered their ranks with star signings such as Danny Cipriani and Richie Gray.

“It is going to be a big year for the club, especially with us being in the Heineken Cup,” admitted the Derby-born forward.

“However, it is one we are all relishing and can’t wait to get stuck into. Personally, it’s great that pre-season is now over and we can get into the action properly. I know you have to do a lot of hard work in pre-season, which we’ve done, but you don’t genuinely get your match fitness until you start playing games regularly.

“Therefore it has been great that we’ve had these three warm-up games and the boys have all been given decent game time. I know everybody is chomping at the bit to be involved and that everybody is sticking their hand and saying they want the shirt as much as the next guy. For all of us it’s a fantastic opportunity, but we know the Premiership is a tough environment and you have to be on your game every week.”

Like the Sharks, Exeter have also bolstered their numbers during the close season with eight new faces having added to the Sandy Park playing ranks by Baxter. Whitehead – now into his third season with the club – has been impressed by those who have joined and is predicting bright things for the upcoming season.

“Rob is a great judge of character,” said Whitehead. “We don’t really have any superstars at the club, but we have a lot of players who will work very hard for one another. That is what we are built on and what has served us so well for the past couple of years. It’s now up to us to show that again this season because sides now know all about Exeter and what threats we carry.”

Certainly the Chiefs demonstrated last term what a force they can be in the top flight, finishing the season in a best-ever placing of fifth spot. And Whitehead says the club will be looking to demonstrate a similar attitude when they kick-off again this weekend.

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