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Chiefs side to face Bath

The waiting is finally over and months of hard work on the training fields will at last be put into action as Exeter Chiefs prepare to kick-off their latest Aviva Premiership campaign.

Buoyed by an unbeaten pre-season programme, which saw them lift the inaugural Westcountry Challenge Cup and defeat local rivals Bath and Gloucester, both home and away, it's down to the nitty-gritty of league action that occupies the thoughts of Exeter head coach Rob Baxter and his squad this weekend.

Fresh from an impressive 43-16 success over Bath at the Recreation Ground last Saturday, the Chiefs return to the Roman City tomorrow (2pm) for their seasonal opener against last season's beaten Premiership finalists.

Already, Baxter has warned his troops that a much different battle will await them on their swift return. With the hosts set to be strengthened with a number of Rugby World Cup returnees, this latest match-up promises to be a much closer affair, given the personnel on display.

With Baxter himself lifted by the return of six of his seven World Cup stars, it's only England international Henry Slade who is called upon this weekend. And even then the talented playmaker can only make the bench as the Chiefs leader sticks with an unchanged starting XV, which includes prop Ben Moon, who will be making his 100th league appearance for the club.

Keen to reward those who impressed not only last week, but also during the pre-season as a whole, never before has Baxter entered into a new season with such a wealth of riches from which to choose from.

Indeed, the make-up of Exeter's opening starting line-up has a familiar feel with winger James Short the sole newcomer in Baxter's plans. However, on the bench summer signings Ollie Atkins, Julian Salvi and former Bath flyer Olly Woodburn are included for the first time.

So, with personnel in place, plans finalised and the team chomping at the bit, it's little wonder Baxter cannot wait for the new campaign to begin, especially having seen his side perform so well last term.

Exeter recorded a best-ever finish when they finished in fifth spot back in May – and they narrowly missed out on making the play-offs for the first time, albeit on points' difference, despite finishing with a flourish.

It was, however, the Christmas period that ultimately proved costly, when a four-game losing streak saw them shed vital points on those around them. Baxter admits lessons were learned in the aftermath of that period and he knows a similar story this time round could again prove costly for him and his team.

"When you look at the points you need to be in the top six and the top four, there isn't a lot of difference. It is only one or two wins,” said Baxter ahead of tomorrow's curtain-raiser.

"We have just had our best year in the Premiership, we got to the quarter-final of a European competition and it is going to take some doing to live up to that. But that's what you want. You want big challenges.

"We have spoken to the players about it, we don't hide from it, we treat them like men and they know there is a big challenge in front of them.

"For us to get a similar points score to what we got last year in the Premiership, we are going to have to start collecting points straight away and you have to do that in every game in some manner. That's a challenge, we were quite good at that last year, but we probably lacked a bit of consistency against the teams that finished at the bottom end of the league.

"We were great against the big guys and got ourselves up for some huge performances, but we have to add some consistency across the season.

"Our preparation has been based on this first block of four fixtures, not just the Bath game, and we have to accrue a good number of points from these first four fixtures and then we will see where we stand.”

And whilst pre-season preparations have been encouraging, Baxter is the first to admit that it's 'only pre-season' and that tomorrow's fixture is the key starting point.

"A win in pre-season is a different animal to a win in the Premiership,” added Baxter. "We have to be prepared now for a step up in intensity and not just think we can roll into the Premiership.

"I have been involved for long enough now to know that when you have a good run of results, everything goes well in training, things are going the same way, it doesn't mean it will happen on the Saturday. You have to have some stage in the week where you need to reset yourselves, things do need to change and you need more intensity and a bit more focus.

"We can't take anything for granted and to be fair to the players, I think they have trained well this week, they know there will be a significantly different challenge from Bath, but at the same time, we have to focus on ourselves because we are a good side, we have played well through pre-season and we have to talk about doing what we want to do.”

And having faced Bath only seven days earlier, a somewhat strange scenario compared to pre-seasons of the past, the situation doesn't over concern Baxter too much.

He continued: "I don't really mind if we showed our hand and whether Bath did or didn't show theirs. We didn't really talk about that, we just said it was a pre-season game and we will use it for what we want to achieve.

"Whether Bath showed their hand or not, I don't know. I hope they do show something different because that will wake us up, it will challenge us and will mean we are focused and switched on.

"Bath may feel they didn't fire all the shots that they wanted to last week and they will have a number of different players returning, so it will be a slightly different line-up and the challenge because it's a Premiership game.

"Games at Bath are always fantastic, our supporters love going there and it is one of those games you want to be involved in. It's a fantastic way to start the season.”

15 Phil Dollman
14 Matt Jess
13 Ian Whitten
12 Sam Hill
11 James Short
10 Gareth Steenson (capt)
9 Will Chudley
1 Ben Moon
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Alex Brown
4 Mitch Lees
5 Damian Welch
6 Dave Ewers
7 Don Armand
8 Thomas Waldrom

16 Jack Yeandle
17 Alec Hepburn
18 Moray Low
19 Ollie Atkins
20 Julian Salvi
21 Dave Lewis
22 Henry Slade
23 Olly Woodburn

To see all of the 2015-16 Aviva Premiership Rugby Season fixtures, please click here #AvivaPrem

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