EXETER Chiefs director of rugby Rob Baxter has named a strong side as they begin the defence of the Premiership Rugby Cup trophy against Bristol Bears at Sandy Park tomorrow (3pm), writes Jack Lewis.
Eight days on from a pre-season hit out against the Bears at Ashton Gate, which the Chiefs won 36-31, the two sides clash again in a tasty season opener.
"I think the huge positives were that we’ve worked on several things in training and we saw them all, we saw all the foundations of our game there," said Baxter.
"We’ve spent a huge amount of time on set-piece, we’ve brought in a new scrum coach with Ross McMillan and he’s spent a lot of time across the weeks with the forwards on various detail elements around the scrum.
"I think some of our attack, our flow and our shape looked very good, we scored some tries in a way that we want to moving forward, and that’s quick. Quick off set piece, or quick off an attacking kick, and that’s what we’re trying to do, to bring some tempo into the game and perhaps move away from some of the grinding play in the middle of the field.”
The Premiership Rugby Cup has had a revamp, with the addition of Championship clubs for this new season, and with a long history and a storied journey through the leagues, Baxter is pleased to see the competition expanding to include these teams.
"I think for me personally it’s fantastic, these used to be some of the biggest games that I played in and I hope it continues in this format and we stay in these semi-local groups," he said. "I’m really looking forward to the Pirates coming here next week and know their team are as well, we should get a good crowd and these are the kind of fixtures that will re-ignite local rugby.”
Baxter added: "We don’t really know what our best side is, right here and now there is no player that is pencilled in for that Saracens game on October 14th, they’ve all got points to prove.
"There are guys who’ve been left out this week who are just as likely to feature in that opening Premiership fixture, as the guys who will be taking the field on Saturday. It’s for them all to take a spot, it’s for them all to keep training well and demand that they’re the person who should be there week by week.”
The Chiefs have made one change to the pack that started against Bristol last week, with Jacques Vermeulen at open side flanker.
Slade joins Joe Hawkins in an exciting all-international centre pairing, while the back three of Josh Hodge, Tom Wyatt and Ben Hammersley have an average age of just 22.
There is a welcome return to the bench for hooker Dan Frost, who missed out on last week’s friendly, whilst Niall Armstrong comes into the 23 for the injured Will Becconsall, who picked up a shoulder niggle against Bristol.
Bristol director of rugby Pat Lam told their club's website: “With a number of players away at the World Cup, others returning from injury and last night’s game against the Barbarians, this is a great opportunity for a lot of our young Academy players to face a huge challenge.
“Although we know we are overwhelming underdogs away to a full-strength Chiefs team at Sandy Park, we see this as a fantastic challenge for our young guys to play as a Bears team and I know they are relishing the opportunity to take on that challenge.”
Exeter: 15. Josh Hodge, 14. Ben Hammersley, 13. Henry Slade, 12. Joe Hawkins, 11. Tom Wyatt, 10. Harvey Skinner, 9. Tom Cairns, 1. Scott Sio, 2. Jack Yeandle (capt), 3. Ehren Painter, 4. Matt Postlethwaite, 5. Lewis Pearson, 6. Ethan Roots, 7. Jacques Vermeulen, 8. Greg Fisilau. Replacements: 16. Dan Frost, 17. Billy Keast, 18. Patrick Schickerling, 19. Rusi Tuima, 20. Ross Vintcent, 21. Niall Armstrong, 22. Will Haydon-Wood, 23. Tom Hendrickson.
Bristol: M Jones, I Campbell-Wu, H Ascherl, D Power, A Boshoff, S Worsley, S Wolstenholme, A Turner, F Davies (capt), J Benz-Salomon, J Caulfield, J Owen, G Taylor, M Duncan, P Pearce. Replacements: Gwilliam, Sims, Halliwell, Harvey, Cripps, Lennon, Baker, Hamid.