Exeter Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter says he’s "excited" at what lies ahead after the Aviva Premiership fixtures for the 2016/16 season were confirmed this morning.
Entering into their sixth season in English rugby's top flight, Baxter will be looking for his squad to build on last season's best-ever campaign, when the Devon club narrowly missed out on a place in the end of season play-offs on points difference.
Exeter's fifth-place finish equalled that of the 2011/12 season, but their total of 68 points eclipsed that of any other year and the Chiefs leader is keen his team kick on once more.
With the Rugby World Cup dominating the landscape for the next few months, the Premiership will have a much later kick-off this season with the Chiefs opening their campaign on Saturday, October 17 with a televised trip to local rivals Bath.
A week later they open their home account with the visit of London Irish, before the opening month of fixtures is filled with an away-day at Newcastle Falcons on November 1 and a home encounter with Leicester Tigers on November 7.
Commenting on the release of the fixtures, Baxter – whose side will also be back amongst Europe's elite clubs in the Champions Cup – said: "It's like any year, you wait for the fixtures to come out, you look at them, puff out your cheeks and go ‘here we go again’. There are some great fixtures in there and that’s what it has been like ever since we have been in the Premiership.
"You can never say it’s an easy start, easy middle or an easy finish because it’s not. The Premiership is such a competitive group of clubs now that every week there is a different challenge.
"Looking at Bath, traditionally fixtures between ourselves and them are fantastic, so it’s great for the supporters they have that game first up. I know they will love going to bath for the first game – and oddly enough I think we’re there the week before in pre-season, which makes it a bit strange and a different challenge, but one that will be interesting."
The release means that Baxter and his fellow coaches will now be able to focus their attentions fully on the new season, starting from Monday when the majority of the Chiefs squad report back in for day one of pre-season.
"It's always nice to get the fixtures, simply because everything starts to become more tangible," explained Baxter. "Pre-season is starting on Monday, the fixtures are here and now it all feels real and we can set some genuine targets to get ready for.
"For me, it's great to have a home game at Christmas because we've not had that for a couple of years now, but overall, it’s going to be a fantastic season again.
"Again we'll get to play some big sides at big times of the year – and when you look at that middle block, the end of January through to the middle of April, that’s a run of fixtures which you will never see in any other competition in the world in terms of quality.
"As I said, we now have the fixtures and that in itself will help to sharpen the minds. I think we should look at those fixtures, especially those first ones, with real excitement and go from there."
Because the World Cup dominates the normal start time for the Premiership, Baxter readily admits pre-season and build-up to the new campaign will be different to that of other years.
"It would be naïve to say it won’t be different," he added. "Timings will be different because of the mid-October start; World Cup games will be played at some of the clubs, including ourselves, so that means we are training at different venue for a part of the year as well. That all makes it different, but when things change like that you must try to use it as a positive and do something different and fresher.
"It will also be different trying to reintroduce a number of the international players back into the team as well, but these are the kind of challenges you want as a coach. Personally, I like this time of the year because you get the players with you, you coach them, you talk with them, and there is no pressure of a game on a Saturday.
"Having that eight to ten week block to work with them and develop skills in a non-pressurised environment is fantastic as it's about working on long-term goals and the bigger picture."
17 Bath (A)
24 London Irish (H)
1 Newcastle Falcons (A)
7 Leicester Tigers (H)
14 European Rugby 1
21 European Rugby 2
28 Harlequins (H)
5 Wasps (A)
12 European Rugby 3
19 European Rugby 4
26 Sale Sharks (H)
2 Northampton Saints (A)
9 Gloucester (H)
16 European Rugby 5
23 European Rugby 6
30 Worcester Warriors (A)
6 Saracens (H)
13 Sale Sharks (A)
20 London Irish (A)
27 Bath (H)
5 Leicester Tigers (A)
12 Newcastle Falcons (H)
19 Northampton Saints (H)
26 Saracens (A)
2 Worcester Warriors (H)
9 European Rugby Quarter-Finals
16 Gloucester (A)
23 European Rugby Semi-Finals
30 Wasps (H)
7 Harlequins (A)
14 European Rugby Finals
21 Aviva Premiership Semi-Finals
28 Aviva Premiership Final