It all began with a home fixture against Gloucester and now 99 Aviva Premiership games later, it’s the Cherry & Whites who again provide the opposition for Exeter Chiefs as they prepare to engage in their 100th top flight game tomorrow (4:30pm).
Back in September 2010, Rob Baxter’s side wasted little time in introducing themselves to English rugby’s top table for the first time. Taking little notice of Gloucester’s proven Premiership credentials, the new kids on the block sounded their future intent by bloodying the nose of their rivals, claiming a memorable 22-10 success at Sandy Park.
In the years that have followed, the Devon club – who have collected 50 Premiership wins to date – have continued to push forward in the same vein, both on and off the field. Two top six finishes ensured Heineken Cup rugby for Baxter’s ever-improving side, whilst last season the Chiefs secured their first piece of major silverware when they downed Northampton Saints to lift the LV= Cup.
This season, the Chiefs – who spent £10m this summer redeveloping their stadium – have continued their upward curve, positioning themselves nicely in the top four of the Premiership at halfway, as well as topping both their European and LV= Cup pools.
And despite back-to-back defeats over the festive period to Sale Sharks and Bath Rugby, Baxter knows his team have never been in a better position to attack the second half of the season.
Tomorrow, it all starts again for the Chiefs, who back in September claimed a 25-22 victory over Gloucester at Kingsholm.
Baxter knows this is the time when the big teams start to make their move at the top end and he is hoping the sell-out crowd of over 12,000 will provide the spark to re-ignite Exeter’s campaign after two tough away days.
"I know we’ve only been away for a couple of weeks, but it does feel a bit longer what with the Christmas period and the amount of travelling we’ve had to do," said Baxter.
"I suppose the disappointment of some of the things that have happened, I guess it’s nice to come back home and strive to keep our home record going.
"To have a sell-out crowd; it be the start of a New Year and the start of the second half of Premiership fixtures; it all adds up be an important fixture for us.
"In some ways this is our festive game and we’re very much looking forward to it. I know the lads love playing here at Sandy Park and we’ve played well here both in the Premiership and the other competitions.
"As I said, we’re very much looking forward to getting back here, not to set the record straight as such, but more set our level of performance to where we want it to be. I thought a lot of what we did against Bath last week was very good.
"For 55, 60 minutes, away from home, and there be nothing in the game is a good achievement. What we have to do – and we’ve talked about it this week – is nudge ourselves over the line and make the next two or three things go your way. Bath did that very well and made those little things go their way and they stole the momentum of the game. We have to learn from that and experience is a big part of that learning process for us."
With 33 points already bagged in the top flight from 11 games, the Chiefs are hoping the second half of the season proves equally profitable as they aim to secure a place within the division’s top four.
Baxter added: "We’ve never had this many points at the halfway stage, but all you are fighting for at this stage of the season is to give yourself a chance to be in some big games at the end of the season.
"We are very much aware of that and we have said we now have two games before the next Cup break where we have to get points, if you want to be hanging in and around the top four. You have to collect points now because the games will come thick and fast."
Like the Chiefs, Gloucester also come into tomorrow’s tussle on the back of two successive home defeats and Baxter feels there will be pressure on both sides to perform.
He continued: "We are under what you’d say is positive pressure and we want to put pressure on ourselves to stay at the top end. Gloucester, I suppose, are under a different pressure to get results and start climbing the league.
"This weekend, though, it’s who uses the motivation the best. If we want to be successful, we have to shift our motivation. For us the opportunities are ahead if we continue to play well. It’s not like previous years where we have been the team fighting to prove ourselves all the time. Now we have to move beyond that and we have to fight to show we are a good side who want to be at the right end of the table."
Team news for the Chiefs sees Baxter stick with an unchanged back division from that which faced Bath last time out, whilst up front a knock to Damian Welch’s knee means he misses out and is replaced by Mitch Lees in the second-row.
On the bench, Kai Hortsmann is struggling with a neck complaint, so Ben White comes into the mix, as does young lock Jerry Sexton, who features in a Premiership squad for the first time. Also included after an impressive display for the Braves on Monday is Byron McGuigan, who is given the nod over Fetu’u Vainikolo.
15 Phil Dollman
14 Jack Nowell
13 Henry Slade
12 Sam Hill
11 Matt Jess
10 Gareth Steenson
9 Will Chudley
1 Ben Moon
2 Jack Yeandle
3 Moray Low
4 Dean Mumm (capt)
5 Mitch Lees
6 Dave Ewers
7 Don Armand
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Luke Cowan-Dickie
17 Carl Rimmer
18 Tomas Francis
19 Jerry Sexton
20 Ben White
21 Haydn Thomas
22 Ian Whitten
23 Byron McGuigan