Exeter Chiefs switch from domestic duties to that of Europe this weekend as they mark their first outing in the Champions Cup with an away day at Ospreys on Sunday (5:30pm).
After three successive victories in the Aviva Premiership, Rob Baxter’s side will be looking to continue their good form against the Welsh region at the Liberty Stadium.
It’s some two years since Devon’s finest last mixed it with Europe’s elite – facing the likes of Glasgow Warriors, Cardiff Blues and back-to-back winners, RC Toulon in the old Heineken Cup – and their re-introduction this year promises to be just as tough with the Chiefs also set to tackle French sides Bordeaux-Begles and Clermont-Auvergne, as well as Sunday’s opponents.
Baxter and his players, however, are relishing the challenges that lie ahead and cannot wait to see where that stand in terms of their development, particularly having made such a strong start to the season, including three successive victories in the Aviva Premiership.
“I like the change up as a competition,” said Baxter. “I like the fact we are going into a competition where we can show the best of ourselves, put others under pressure and just go out and show what we are all about. Personally, I really like that it’s do or die, all or nothing, and that we can go after it as hard as we can.
“Going away to Ospreys is a great start for us, they are the team who should be really under pressure, it’s a home game for them and next week they go to Clermont, so that’s a tough start for them. However, if we can start well, show our qualities and put them under pressure, it should be an interesting game up there.”
Although the Chiefs have faced the Ospreys twice before – both times victorious in the LV= Cup – this latest encounter promises to be a much tougher affair, particularly as the hosts will be buoyed by the recent return of many of their Welsh Rugby World Cup stars, including skipper Alun Wyn-Jones.
“Personnel wise they will be different, as will their focus,” added the Chiefs head coach. “In the past regional sides build themselves up for this period, whereas it’s slightly different in the Premiership as you know you have to get off to a flyer and do well, otherwise you could end up in the relegation zone or out of the league before it starts.
“For us, it’s more about a shift of focus rather than a build for these games. We have already built to be very good in the early rounds of the Premiership, so now we have to shift our focus to see if we can accelerate and intensify into these two European games.”
Certainly Baxter’s squad will head into the Principality with not only a greater depth to it than that of two years ago, but also a wealth of big game experience and knowledge.
“For sure we’re in a lot better position this time, simply because a lot of the guys have had that experience in the Heineken Cup two years ago,” continued Baxter. “Games against the likes of Toulon, I remember Henry [Slade] coming in at the last minute over there, they are fantastic experiences and can only benefit you as a player.
“I think now we’re reaping the rewards of some of those experiences, but I also hope in years to come we will reap even more if we can get some continued development in this competition.
“Our aim is to be in this competition as often as we can and when we are in it, to then be as good as we possibly can.”
Ahead of kick-off, Baxter has been buoyed by the return to training this week of both Ben Moon and Geoff Parling, but neither will be risked in Swansea. Also missing out will be Thomas Waldrom (thigh) and Phil Dollman (rib) both of whom were forced off during last weekend’s win over Leicester Tigers.
That means Baxter sticks with an unchanged starting pack for the game, whilst behind Sam Hill comes into the centre in place of Ian Whitten and Matt Jess is promoted from the bench to the wing, meaning England international Jack Nowell takes over at full-back from Dollman.
On the bench, Tom Johnson is included in the first team squad for the first time this campaign, as is Italian newcomer Michele Campagnaro, who himself is no stranger to the competition having played for Benetton Treviso in the past.
15 Jack Nowell
14 Matt Jess
13 Henry Slade
12 Sam Hill
11 James Short
10 Gareth Steenson (capt)
9 Will Chudley
1 Alec Hepburn
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Tomas Francis
4 Mitch Lees
5 Damian Welch
6 Dave Ewers
7 Julian Salvi
8 Don Armand
16 Jack Yeandle
17 Carl Rimmer
18 Moray Low
19 Ollie Atkins
20 Tom Johnson
21 Dave Lewis
22 Ian Whitten
23 Michele Campagnaro