Rob Baxter insists his Exeter Chiefs side are in “good nick” ahead of their seasonal opener against Wasps in the Aviva Premiership on Sunday (3pm).
Runners-up last season, the Chiefs head for a testing away-day at the Ricoh Arena looking to lay down a solid foundation from which to attack the 2016/17 season.
An unbeaten pre-season programme – which saw the Devon club record victories over Guinness Pro12 sides Scarlets, Ulster and Newport-Gwent Dragons – have given a solid enough base from which to build, but Baxter knows the hard work starts this weekend, up against a familiar foe in the shape of Wasps.
The two clubs met four times last season, including the Premiership play-off semi-final at Sandy Park, when the Chiefs notched up a third win. Home and away wins in the regular season were also high points for Baxter’s side, but it was the Midlanders who triumphed, right at the death, when they collided in the European Champions Cup quarter-final.
Baxter expects this latest installment to throw up another intriguing battle, but at the same time believes his team are in fine fettle for this opening skirmish.
“It’s that weird time of year,” said Baxter. “A week ago I would say we felt in good nick and ready to go, but here we are a few days away from the big kick-off and you start to wonder if everything is in place. The truth is the players have been very good in training, diligent about everything they have done, and they’ve been very good at taking on the new stuff we’ve introduced.
“For me, the reality is we should be looking forward to the game, simply because we are ready to play some competitive rugby. In a lot of ways we’re lucky to be going to the Ricoh as it’s a great place to go and play and we’re going to come up against a very good, yet very tough, Wasps side.”
And with very minimal change to the playing stock at Sandy Park this summer, it’s a familiar looking line-up that will take to the field on Sunday. Former Bath back Ollie Devoto will be handed his league debut in the centre alongside Sam Hill for the visitors, while Aussie newcomers Dave Dennis and Greg Holmes will both be looking to make impressions of their own, should they be summoned from the bench.
On the sidelines they will be joined by club captain Jack Yeandle and last season’s leading points’ scorer Gareth Steenson, so Don Armand – fresh from his exploits with the England Saxons during the summer – will lead the Chiefs into battle for Round One.
“We finished runners-up last season, so we shouldn’t really be looking to have too much change,” said Baxter. “A lot of what we did last season was very good because we were the best defensive team in the Premiership and second best attacking-wise, so it’s been more about fine tuning things this summer, rather than making any kind of wholesale changes.
“Here at the club we are big believers in having a couple of systems that work really well in both attack and defence and we believe that the best way to improve is if we can get better at them and upskill in all departments. We want to get better individually which will help us get better as a team.
“If you look at what Saracens have done in the past when they have lost a semi-final or a final, they’ve not tended to panic or change masses. What they do instead is get good at their base qualities, looking to bring in one or two players who can add to the qualities of what they have got there, as well as work hard on the retention of their top players.
“In a lot of ways that’s been a bit of a lesson for us. Yes, we have lost a Premiership Final, but there are two important things you do after that. One is you don’t overreact because you lost, the other is you don’t under-react. We’ve not come into the season everything is going to be great because we got to a final last year.
“At the same time, though, we’ve also said if we work hard at what got us into that final and to the top end of the league, then we give ourselves a great chance to get back there again this year. That’s the message we’ve kind of installed into the squad over pre-season and hopefully they will use that over the course of the season.”
Like the Chiefs, Wasps – who have invested heavily in new talent of their own, including the likes of Danny Cipriani, Kurtley Beale, Willy Le Roux and Kyle Eastmond – will also be wanting to kick-off the new season on a high note.
Baxter is well aware of the threat they pose to his charges, adding: “It’s east to say we know each other inside out, but both sides will want to adapt their game. They will have worked on new things, just the same as we have over the summer.
“What I know is it should be another hugely exciting game. First games can be edgy to start with, referees are getting back into the swing of things as well, so the whole thing needs to build a bit of pace.
“As I said, it should be a tremendous fixture. Dai [Young], I know, is ambitious to achieve things with his club, so it’s a great challenge, but that is what being in the Premiership is all about these days.”
CHIEFS SIDE TO FACE WASPS
15 Phil Dollman
14 Olly Woodburn
13 Ollie Devoto
12 Sam Hill
11 Ian Whitten
10 Henry Slade
9 Will Chudley
1 Ben Moon
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Harry Williams
4 Mitch Lees
5 Damian Welch
6 Don Armand (capt)
7 Julian Salvi
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Jack Yeandle
17 Alec Hepburn
18 Greg Holmes
19 Geoff Parling
20 Dave Dennis
21 Dave Lewis
22 Gareth Steenson
23 James Short