IT will be near enough four months since Exeter Chiefs' men last took to the field for a game of rugby, and with a summer that has seen several of the club’s stalwart players departing for pastures new, the first team sheet of the 23/24 season has been hotly anticipated by fans with a new dawn rising in Devon, writes Jack Lewis.
The test, against a Bristol Bears side who themselves have a seen a number of high-profile stars leaving the West Country, will prove an interesting opportunity for director of rugby Rob Baxter to see what sort of shape his charges are in, with the Premiership Cup looming just around the corner.
As with all pre-season friendlies, this is a chance for both sides to explore combinations, assess some of the key focus points that have been emphasised during the gruelling pre-season, and gauge the readiness of their team for what is always a long and challenging Premiership and European campaign.
For this opening fixture, Baxter and his team have graced the world with not one, but two team sheets, with each side getting the opportunity of 40 minutes of rugby, and he is heading into the match with obvious excitement and anticipation.
"It feels very much like a start of an adventure in a lot of ways, I’m looking forward to watching the game, and I’m also looking forward to re-watching the game and assessing where the individual players are and getting the opportunity as a group of coaches to sit down and work with them to talk about where we can go forward.
"I’m really excited about it, more excited about it than I have been in a little while, certainly in a different way.
“I’ll say to the lads on Friday that there will be some of them sat in the changing room, who will be some of the people who will lift Exeter’s next major trophy, and that’s the opportunity you get, that should be incredibly exciting for all of them.”
There is no doubt that the squad has a new feel, with plenty of players looking to lay down a marker and set out their stall early ahead of the new campaign.
Summer arrivals Ehren Painter, Matt Postlethwaite and Ethan Roots all start the first half in the pack and will look to make their mark, whilst Greg Fisilau, fresh from an impressive summer with the England U20s, packs down at number 8.
In the back line, Tom Cairns and Tom Wyatt will look to continue their fine form from last season, whilst Josh Hodge will be keen to make the full-back shirt his own, following the retirement of Stuart Hogg.
The second half will see a backline full of young talent take to the Ashton Gate turf. Will Haydon-Wood, another who made the move to Devon over the summer, will take over the fly-half shirt from Harvey Skinner and will be keen to stake his claim, whilst youngsters Arthur Relton, Kian Gentry, Chester Ribbons and Charlie McCaig all feature, with an average age of just 21.
There is no doubting the talent that will be travelling up the M5, but for Baxter this is a chance to look at some of the key learnings from the previous season that he and his coaches have looked to address over the summer.
"One which we have spent a huge amount of time on is our set piece, in the last couple of seasons one thing that has been a traditional strength for us has not been a strength, if anything it has been something that has broken up our game.
"Overall we’re talking about having an energy and an excitement and a pace about the way that we play, we want to keep things fast and enjoyable.
"We want it to be exciting for people; we’re very aware that we want big crowds to come through here, and part of that is the style that we play, but I’m a big believer that supporters want to come and watch guys that are fully committed to what they do.”
Commitment won’t be the only thing that fans will be judging Baxter and this new-look Chiefs side on, but there is no denying the enormous excitement brewing within Sandy Park.
The foundations of a team that can challenge at the very top of the game are forming and with so much young talent keen to throw themselves into the fray, there is no doubt that fans are in for a fun-filled rollercoaster ride this coming season.
It all begins tomorrow night, at Ashton Gate.
Exeter Chiefs first half: Josh Hodge, Ben Hammersley, Tom Hendrickson, Ollie Devoto, Tom Wyatt, Harvey Skinner, Tom Cairns, Scott Sio, Jack Yeandle, Ehren Painter, Matt Postlethwaite, Lewis Pearson, Ethan Roots, Richard Capstick, Greg Fisilau.
Second half:Charlie McCaig, Kian Gentry, Rory O’Laughlin, Chester Ribbons, Arthur Relton, Will Haydon-Wood, Will Becconsall, Billy Keast, Max Norey, Patrick Schickerling, Jack Dunne, Rus Tuima, Aidon Davis, Jacques Vermeulen, Ross Vintcent.
Replacements: James Kenny, Olly Burrows, Marcus Street, Alfie Bell, Junior Kpoku, Joe Bailey, Kane James, Joe Snow, Kofi Barton-Byfield.