Chiefs side to face Connacht
By Mark Stevens
Exeter Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter has told his players “the season starts here” as they prepare to entertain Connacht in their opening pre-season fixture tomorrow (2pm).
After weeks of pre-season preparation and training, it will be on-field action that is the order of the day for Baxter’s men as they prepare to welcome their Irish visitors to Devon for the first time.
In what will be a repeat of last season’s meeting between the two clubs, Exeter’s inspirational leader will be hoping his squad – which has been buoyed by eight new additions this summer – will be able to replicate their impressive showing at Dubarry Park that saw them win 47-10.
Of the eight new arrivals, only one – centre Ian Whitten (pictured) – will be handed a starting role as Baxter sticks to many of his tried-and-trusted stars, who last season helped the Chiefs to finish fifth in the Aviva Premiership and qualify for the Heineken Cup for the first time in the club’s history.
"As far as I am concerned our season starts on Saturday, it doesn't start in three weeks' time. The way the players perform from now on will have a massive effect on what happens," said Baxter.
"What I'm looking to see now is how these guys take their opportunity. If they take it great for them, if they don't there are a lot of players ready to get stuck into things.
"You look at the quality that is backing up the starting line-up and it's starting to get very interesting.”
With subsequent tests to follow against the Cornish Pirates on August 18 and Glasgow Warriors on August 23, Baxter says he and his team are keen to kick-off their pre-season fixtures on a high note.
"First and foremost you say 'there's a game of rugby there, go out and win it'," said Baxter. "That will be our approach.
"We'll go at it as if it's a Premiership game of rugby. It's there to be won and if you play in the right manner you create opportunities and then you have to take them.
"We're not looking at it as a training run by any means, we won't be kicking for the corner just to try moves, we're going to play a game of rugby and that then gives you something you can analyse properly and get something genuine out of.
"We always take pre-season as proper games of rugby. It's about us playing well enough to give ourselves a chance to win a game of rugby."
Whitten’s inclusion in the midfield alongside Fijian powerhouse Sireli Naqelevuki is just one of several options Baxter and his fellow coaches will be keen to look at during tomorrow’s contest.
The former Ulster star has impressed during training in the lead up to the game, whilst the return of Samoan international Josh Tatupu for the first time since he broke his leg against Cavalieri Prato back in January is another boost.
"He's trained very well. He really took off in the last couple of weeks before the break," Baxter said of Whitten. "He looked comfortable, showing good pace and good skills in training.
"With Jason Shoemark being behind the guys a little bit in pre-season with his return from his operation, that's created an opportunity and he (Whitten) is the guy we've decided to put in there.
"Likewise with Josh (pictured), he's trained well, he's starting to show some really good form in training and with Gonzalo (Camacho) away with Argentina, there is an opportunity for a winger to try to lay a claim.
"Josh gets the first crack at that but we have got other guys who are training very well like Mark Foster, he's looking sharp and in very good physical condition."
It is not just in the back division where Baxter has options aplenty, seemingly right across his current squad he now has a plethora of names from which to choose from – and the head coach says everyone will have their opportunity to make their mark.
"We've got a lot of guys fighting for places," said Baxter. "Damian Welch and Aly Muldowney have trained well and will be keen to start pushing Tom (Hayes) and James (Hanks).
"There's a lot of competition in the back row now – TJ has been away and we've still got Kai Horstmann, James Phillips and Dave Ewers there as back-up for this game.
"We've also got some young guys starting to press like Jack Arnott, Jack Nowell and Sam Hill – we've got some serious young talent pressing a claim.”
Tickets for tomorrow’s game are available online through the club website or can be purchased direct from the Ticket Office, which will be open from 11am on match-day.
CHIEFS SQUAD TO FACE CONNACHT
15 Phil Dollman
14 Josh Tatupu
13 Sireli Naqelevuki
12 Ian Whitten
11 Matt Jess
10 Gareth Steenson
9 Kevin Barrett
1 Ben Moon
2 Chris Whitehead
3 Hoani Tui
4 Tom Hayes (capt)
5 James Hanks
6 Ben White
7 James Scaysbrook
8 Richard Bxter
Replacements (from): Simon Alcott, Jack Yeandle, Alex Brown, Chris Budgen, Brett Sturgess, Alex Brown, Aly Muldowney, Damian Welch, Dave Ewers, Kai Horstmann, James Phillips; Will Chudley, Junior Poluleuligaga, Myles Dorrian, Jack Arnott, Mark Foster, Sam Hill, Jack Nowell, Nic Sestaret, Luke Arscott