Exeter Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter is backing his squad to show their strength in what will be a gruelling run of fixtures for all 12 clubs in this season’s Aviva Premiership.
Sunday’s trip to Worcester Warriors marks the start of ten, unrelenting weeks of top-flight action for the Chiefs, who currently sit second in the standings and have just booked themselves a place in the last eight of the European Champions Cup for the first time.
There will be some out there who would look at the challenge ahead with an air of intrepidation, but not Baxter who, like his players, are seemingly relishing what lies ahead.
"This is a big opportunity for us," said Baxter. "We spent a lot of time in pre-season working on rehab and pre-hab and making sure everything we did, especially in terms of our recovery, was right.
"We talked a lot about this being a different kind of season to normal, but we said the teams who thrive through this ten-week block will be the teams who will ultimately thrive in the Premiership this season.
"We have spent probably six months preparing for this ten weeks and although we would have like to have got to this stage without some of the long-term injuries that we’ve picked up, we’ve got here now and we’re really excited about where we are and what we have done so far. Now we have to back ourselves as a team to come through this period the strongest."
Indeed, with just two defeats in the league so far this season – both on the road against Bath and Northampton Saints – the Chiefs have every reason to attack this crucial period with plenty of confidence.
"We’re looking forward to this block of fixtures," continued Baxter. "The attitude of the players has been fantastic in everything we’ve asked them to do. As I said, I’m excited to see what we can do over this block of games. Yes, there are going to be some challenge, including keeping our freshness and our enjoyment factor going, but we’re going to go at it flat out.
"We’re going to challenge other teams around us to see if they can keep up with us."
The first of those challenges, however, come this weekend at Sixways where the Chiefs – who have yet to taste defeat to Worcester in the top flight – provide the opposition.
Having been elevated back into the top tier of English rugby last May following their last-gasp Play-Off success over Bristol, Dean Ryan’s Warriors side have settled well on their return and will pose a stiff hurdle to overcome for the Chiefs.
Baxter himself has been duly impressed by the Midlanders and says nothing less than a top-class performance will do from his players ahead of kick-off.
"We have looked at Worcester a lot recently and people will be aware there have been quite a few tight losses for them," said Baxter. "I quite like what they have done there. I look at their games and a lot of what they do is very good and well structured. They have laid some good foundations and I think that is what makes them a side that is in every game they play.
"We were very similar to that when we first came up because if we didn’t win a game, we would look to fight to the death and that’s a really good quality to have. Worcester are the team that have come up and are fighting very well, so the pressure is on us to go there and perform very well and get something out of the game.
"I don’t mind telling people it’s one of those fixtures where I am going to be sat there on Sunday wondering what mindset we are going to turn up in. We know we have got to get things right because it’s not going to be one of those games where we can just turn up, go through the motions and everything will be okay. Premiership rugby against good sides doesn’t work like that.
"If we start thinking that our system of attack and our system of defence will come over the top of them, it simply doesn’t work like that. Players make systems work and the intensity of how they play. so that’s what we have to focus on."
Baxter has, however, been buoyed by the fact that certain players are available for the trip. Luke Cowan-Dickie and Sam Hill, both of whom have been training with England this week, both return on the bench, while internationals Tomas Francis and Michele Campagnaro both start despite reporting for Six Nations camps at the start of the week.
Also included for his first-ever Premiership start is young lock Jonny Hill, who impressed massively in last weekend’s win over the Ospreys. He will pack down alongside the experienced Geoff Parling, who has recovered from a nasty head wound sustained in the same game. Also back into the starting XV come scrum-half Will Chudley and flanker Julian Salvi.
15 Phil Dollman
14 Olly Woodburn
13 Michele Campanaro
12 Ian Whitten
11 James Short
10 Gareth Steenson
9 Will Chudley
1 Alec Hepburn
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Tomas Francis
4 Jonny Hill
5 Geoff Parling
6 Don Armand
7 Julian Salvi
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Luke Cowan-Dickie
17 Ben Moon
18 Alex Brown
19 Ollie Atkins
20 Kai Horstmann
21 Dave Lewis
22 Will Hooley
23 Sam Hill