Chiefs side to face Sharks
By Mark Stevens
Exeter Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter insists he and his team have done all they can in terms of gearing themselves up for another big year ahead in the Aviva Premiership.
The Chiefs kick-off their 2012/13 campaign tomorrow when Sale Sharks are the visitors to Sandy Park (3pm) and Baxter is hopeful his troops can continue their trend of recent seasons by winning on the opening day.
Pre-season encounters against Connacht, Cornish Pirates and Glasgow Warriors have given Baxter the perfect base from which to work. However, the Chiefs coach is well aware the visiting Sharks - buoyed by a number of summer signings, including Danny Cipriani and Richie Gray - will pose a creditable threat in this seasonal opener.
"We're looking forward to it," admitted Baxter. "That is what it's all about at the end of the day. It's exciting, nerve-wracking, wonderful and horrible
all at the same time. That said, I'm not going to get tired of saying we've worked extremely hard to get to this point. Getting in the Premiership was a fantastic thing for the club to achieve and what we have done in the last couple of years has been great, but we have to work extremely hard to make sure we continue our journey in the Premiership.
"This is what rugby is all about in England, right now we're going OK, but we have to keep our feet on the ground and keep working hard. We need to keep our core values strong and look to build a nice foundation for the season as we have done in other years."
Certainly Exeter have shown since their elevation into English rugby's top tier that they are more than able of competing against the best sides - and last season's fifth place finish underlined the strides the Devon club have made under the leadership of Baxter.
Baxter acknowledges that this season is likely to be his side's toughest, especially with Heineken Cup fixtures to contend with, but he is backing his players to continue in the same vein as that of previous years.
"Obviously getting off to a flyer is great because it takes the pressure off," said Baxter. "However, it's not the end of the world if you're not winning in those first few weeks. Take for example Saracens and Leicester, they didn't have the best of starts last season yet they were both contesting in that top four come the end of the season.
"We know that it's a long season and that there are plenty of points to play for throughout the year. We had a spell last season where we won a number of games on the bounce and all of a sudden your points total is flying, so for me the most important thing is that we are a side that is as competitive as possible every time we play.
"As I've said before, we are still learning all the time. When we got into the Premiership the first thing I said was that we would improve as players and as management through the experiences we gained. Now we are gathering that experience we have to make it count for something.
"Of course there are going to be lots of interesting challenges, especially this season as there are a lot of changes in teams and there is lots of unknown quantities out there, but if we can play well, keep cool and build pressure, sometimes you will come through those challenges and sometimes you won't. The key for me is that we are a competitive side every time we go out to play."
Certainly the Chiefs have demonstrated in pre-season that steely, competitive edge that their leader is calling for - and last week's victory away to Glasgow in Ayr was the ideal warm-up for tomorrow's showdown.
"It was tough at Glasgow and a real test of character," said Baxter. "But it was exactly what we needed going into the new season. The games here at home [against Connacht and the Pirates] were on a nice surface and with no travelling, so it was all very comfortable. Last week, though, we had to cope with different things and it was more about showing our character and testing ourselves against 15 other guys in different surroundings.
"I thought we did that extremely well up in Glasgow. Yes, it wasn't perfect, but we came through and in the end we should probably have won by maybe 10 or 15 more points, such was the control we had on the game. Another pleasing point was that we didn't concede a try against a good attacking side, so you have to give great credit to the guys."
So with the Chiefs in fine fettle, Baxter has selected a strong line-up for the visit of the Sharks, who like the Chiefs finished last season strongly to book themselves a place in the Heineken Cup. Indeed, of the eight new summer signings at Sandy Park, only Irish international Ian Whitten (pictured left) and scrum-half Will Chudley are given the nod from the outset.
Otherwise, it's a familiar looking line-up for Exeter with Tom Hayes again skippering the side from the second row. Whitten partners the experienced Jason Shoemark in the home midfield, whilst Chudley is given a chance to impress as injury deprives the home side of Haydn Thomas in the number nine jersey.
Tickets for the game are still available online or via the Ticket Office, which will be open until 4pm today and again from 12 noon tomorrow.
EXETER CHIEFS SIDE TO FACE SALE SHARKS
15 Phil Dollman
14 Josh Tatupu
13 Ian Whitten
12 Jason Shoemark
11 Matt Jess
10 Ignacio Mieres
9 Will Chudley
1 Brett Sturgess
2 Chris Whitehead
3 Craig Mitchell
4 Tom Hayes (capt)
5 Aly Muldowney
6 Tom Johnson
7 James Scaysbrook
8 Richard Baxter
16 Simon Alcott
17 Ben Moon
18 Chris Budgen
19 James Hanks
20 James Phillips
21 Kevin Barrett
22 Gareth Steenson
23 Luke Arscott