Exeter Chiefs star Don Armand admits expectation levels have rightly changed across the board as he and his team-mates prepare to kick-off a new Aviva Premiership season against Wasps this Sunday (3pm).
No longer seen as English rugby’s ‘New Kids on the Block’ – Rob Baxter’s side underlined their growing emergence within the game last season, advancing to the last eight of the European Champions Cup for the first time, as well as narrowly missing out on a first-ever Premiership title to Saracens.
The development of Devon’s finest has been talked about far and wide, but much of the progress is down to the ethos laid out by Baxter himself, whose desire to pit hard work with solid application has reaped rich rewards since their promotion into the top flight back in 2010.
Armand is well versed in the virtues of the Chiefs, having arrived from Super Rugby side Stormers in 2013. An unknown quantity at the time, the 27-year-old has since underlined his own qualities, forging himself as a key figure of the Chiefs first team squad.
His impressive on-field displays have won him many suitors and were duly rewarded this summer when he was part of the successful England Saxons squad that won 2-0 against the Emerging Springboks.
But never one to rest on his laurels, the Harare-born powerhouse is already looking forward to the new term, which starts with this weekend’s testing engagement at the Ricoh Arena, quickly followed by home dates against champions Saracens and fellow Londoners, Harlequins, a week later.
“We’ve done lots of running and we’ve got the miles in the legs, but pre-season is over now and we’re into the Premiership now,” said Armand. “It starts this weekend with a bang against Wasps and it will be full-on from there on in.
“Sunday will be a big test for us first up, but as players this is what you want. It’s a new season and it’s going to be a big battle for both sides. We had some unbelievable games against them last season and I’ve no doubt it will be the same this season.
“We’ve just got to make sure that we’re the side who prepare the best, play the best and, ultimately, we’re the side who come out on top.”
Certainly the Chiefs will head to Coventry in bullish mood having collected three successive pre-season wins over the Scarlets, Ulster Rugby and, more recently, Newport-Gwent Dragons.
The opening two victories came at fortress Sandy Park, but last Friday’s 32-16 win over the Dragons at Rodney Parade served as a decent work-out for the Chiefs ahead of their opening day encounter.
“It’s good to have a game like Friday to test ourselves and see how we do in certain situations,” admitted Armand. “Initially we didn’t start too great, but for that second part of the first half, then the second half itself, we really came through.
“It was our first away game and we’ve got one or two new guys in the team, so it’s going to take a bit of time to do certain things. That’s pre-season for you, though, you work on a few things and sometimes it can take a minute or two to pick up fully on something.”
By the close in Newport, the switches had been flicked sufficiently and the Chiefs were looking in decent nick, advancing well clear of their Welsh hosts thanks to a try hat-trick from winger Olly Woodburn.
And it’s that form, coupled with last season’s impressive showing, that has seen pundits across the board tipping Baxter’s men to again challenge for top prizes this season.
Armand is well aware the bar has been risen in terms of expectancy levels, adding: “I’ve no doubt more will be expected from us all. That said, it’s something we have been working on for a number of seasons. We’re not the underdogs any more, teams know we will bring something to every game we play.
“On the flip side, we have to realise that other teams will come hard at us and we have to be ready for that. There will be teams – a bit like we were a few years ago – who have nothing to fear and will want to beat us because we’re seen as one of the so-called big teams.
“Therefore we have to be ready to meet that threat head on and it begins this weekend against Wasps.”