New season excites Sturgess
By Mark Stevens
After producing their best-ever finish last season in the Aviva Premiership, Exeter Chiefs prop Brett Sturgess believes the forthcoming campaign will be the toughest yet for the Devon club since their elevation into the top flight.
In only their second year in the Premiership, Rob Baxter's side improved significantly on their maiden campaign to finish fifth in the standings, narrowly missing out on a place in the end of season play-offs.
However, such feats are now confined to the history books and Sturgess knows he and his fellow Chiefs will have to once again produce the goods in a year which will not only see Exeter compete again in the Premiership, but also the prestigious Heineken Cup for the first time.
With plenty of hard work already expended during a gruelling pre-season programme, the Chiefs will get their first opportunity to show their worth in Saturday's opening pre-season friendly when Connacht are the visitors to Sandy Park (2pm).
Saturday's clash is a return fixture from that of 12 months ago when the Chiefs travelled to Ireland to play Connacht, winning the clash between the two at Dubarry Park 47-10.
That victory was the first of three warm-up successes for Baxter's men and helped set them up for a great start to the competitive season.
Sturgess, though, thinks this weekend's match could be a very different challenge, stating: "In the first game of pre-season you never know what to expect but we can't think of last year's game and think it's going to be the same, it's a year on so they'll have different players and different combinations. We'll have to be at our best against a team that is also in the Heineken Cup again this season."
Indeed, Connacht showed last season their qualities when they undid Premiership champions Harlequins in a keenly-contested Heineken Cup encounter at the Sportsground.
The game will be Exeter's first since they wrapped up their Premiership campaign in May at Saracens and Sturgess knows the Chiefs will no longer be seen as relative newcomers amongst the elite of the English game.
"People talked about second-season syndrome last year but we finished fifth," said the 30-year-old prop. "Then people said we finished fifth because of a poor start from other teams and maybe because of the World Cup, but we carried it on after the World Cup and that was a massive achievement for us.
"This year teams are at full strength from the start and I think this is going to be one of the tougher seasons.
"We are not being talked about now as being down there at the bottom end, we are being talked about as being at the top end and that has challenges in itself.
"We've now got to perform because if we under-perform people will start talking negatively. We've got the challenge of performing week in and week out, but it's something I think we can do because we've got a great squad and a great team behind us."
Head coach Rob Baxter has selected the majority of the first-choice players from last season for the game against Connacht, with Irish centre Ian Whitten the only summer arrival to start.
Sturgess has been one of the cornerstones of the pack since he joined in 2007, making 102 league appearances and starting 12 of the first 14 Premiership matches last season before breaking his arm, but misses out this weekend.
He knows players cannot take their place for granted and accepts that anyone who performs well on Saturday can nail down a starting berth for the league opener at home against Sale Sharks on September 1.
"It's a new season, everyone starts from a clean slate," he said. "Rob (Baxter) knows what the old guard can do but it doesn't mean you're a dead cert – you've got to work as hard as the guys who have come in, they want to put their hand up and start Premiership games as well.
"You can't sit on your laurels and think you've been here for a few seasons and that's it, the man next to you has an opportunity as well. It's exciting that we've got three games now, if you put in a good performance in the first one you could be there for Sale at the end of it."