Lessons have been learnt
By Mark Stevens
Tom Hayes insists Exeter will not prioritise the Heineken Cup over the Aviva Premiership this season, adamant the lessons of properly balancing European and domestic rugby from last term have been learnt.
The 32-year-old skippered the Chiefs to an impressive fifth in their second campaign in the Aviva Premiership last season, missing out on a semi-final place to Northampton Saints by just six points.
Hayes admits last year's run in the Amlin Challenge Cup, where Exeter reached the quarter-finals before losing 22-17 to Stade Francais, led to a relaxed attitude when returning to domestic action.
Indeed the Chiefs only won one of their remaining three games after that exit with one of their two losses coming against the Saints, who pipped them into the top four.
Still a fifth-place finish secured Exeter Heineken Cup rugby for the first time in their history and lock Hayes insists they won't make the same mistakes that they did last season.
"The Heineken Cup is big for the club and it's part of the huge excitement around the club and the journey we have been on and where we have come from," said Hayes. "But it's not particularly hard to focus on the Aviva Premiership because if you take your eye off it you get hurt. We have learnt that hard lesson already.
"It wasn't necessarily the case that we took our eye off the Aviva Premiership with Amlin Challenge Cup games last season. It was just a case of thinking we might have been comfortable going into games and we were severely punished in them.
"There's not unfinished business but it did hurt because we had given ourselves the opportunity to do something that would have been amazing in making the play-offs in our second season. But when you look back at it we finished fifth so it's still a brilliant result for us. We didn't perform that well against Northampton but they did show us what you need to do to get into the play-offs.
"So we know we can't put the Aviva Premiership to one side just because we have got a big Heineken Cup campaign coming up. If we do that we will be massively punished particularly with the start we have got in the Premiership this year."
Exeter face the top four clubs from last season in their first six Aviva Premiership games with back-to-back fixtures scheduled against Saracens, Leicester and champions Harlequins.
Northampton follow after the season opener with Sale Sharks at Sandy Park, however Hayes admits the Chiefs won't be setting themselves up for a fall come the end of the season by publically targeting the top four.
"If we can start turning the last-minute losses and bonus-point losses we had away at Quins and Sarries and Gloucester at home into victories then without actually setting ourselves a target position I think we will be very happy with where we get to," he added.
"You would hope that would mean the play-offs but we haven't nailed a position down which means the season is a success or a failure if we get it or if we don't. We are ambitious and we will approach the season as ambitiously as we can."