Exeter Chiefs assistant coach Ali Hepher believes his side will have to produce one of their best displays of the season if they are to come away with victory in tomorrow night’s Aviva Premiership clash with Sale Sharks at Edgeley Park (7.45pm).
Having just concluded the opening two rounds of the Amlin Challenge Cup with a narrow defeat to Perpignan and a comprehensive victory over Cavalieri Prato last time out, the Chiefs are clearly relishing getting back into the bread and butter of domestic action this week.
“These are great games for us and the reason why you are in the Premiership,” said Hepher. “Everyone is excited ahead of Friday’s game and there has been a different level and a different intensity to our training this week. We are fully committed to putting in a good performance, but at the same time we are aware we will need to put in one of our best performances of the season to get something from the game.
Tomorrow’s test, however, will be the first of many the Chiefs will encounter either side of Christmas – and according to Hepher such challenges are just the ticket for the Chiefs.
“The games will come thick and fast now, but that is what you want,” said Hepher. “At the moment we are focused on this week and the Sale game, then we will move onto thinking about Worcester and beyond that. We have a good squad here and one which we will need in the coming weeks. That said, we have full confidence in whoever steps up for this team.”
As expected the Chiefs welcome back much of their heavy artillery for this latest clash. Head coach Rob Baxter opted to give many of his frontline stars the weekend off against Prato last Saturday, but many of those who took to the field in Perpignan return to duty at Stockport.
Indeed, there are just two changes from the team which lost 15-12 at the Stade Aime Giral a fortnight ago. One comes in the pack where Tom Johnson is preferred to Ben White in the back-row, whilst behind the scrum Frenchman Nic Sestaret will partner Jason Shoemark in the centre. Samoan international Josh Tatupu is the man who makes way.
Commenting on the two changes, Hepher remarked: “They will both bring an energy and a spirit to the side which is second to none. They are great guys and they work hard. Obviously Tom has played a lot of rugby this season, but he looks well, he’s re-energised and fully focused on Friday. As for Nic, whenever he pulls a Chiefs shirt on he brings a certain level of emotion, which is fantastic and lifts the guys around him. Neither of them has ever let us down and we hope those two have big performances.”
It is not just Johnson and Sestaret who will be keen to impress in Stockport. With the Chiefs have utilised much of their squad over the past fortnight, Hepher says the battle for places within the first team squad is intense.
“It’s a real battle at the moment, but you don’t want to be struggling around and picking a player who is not in form,” said Hepher. “All the guys are pushing hard for places and we’ve got the Academy guys on top of that. It’s as tough as you can get right now, but you would not want it any other way.”
Buoyed by the fact that they completed the league double over the Sharks last season, the Chiefs will head up the motorways in confident mood, this despite losing their last four Premiership fixtures.
With the exception of Northampton away, the Chiefs have managed to claim some kind of bonus point reward in the other three fixtures against Saracens, Harlequins and, more recently, Gloucester.
15 Luke Arscott
14 Gonzalo Camacho
13 Nic Sestaret
12 Jason Shoemark
11 Matt Jess
10 Gareth Steenson
9 Pat Phibbs
1 Brett Sturgess
2 Neil Clark
3 Hoani Tui
4 Tom Hayes (capt)
5 James Hanks
6 Tom Johnson
7 James Scaysbrook
8 Richard Baxter
16 Simon Alcott
17 Ben Moon
18 Craig Mitchell
19 James Phillips
20 Ben White
21 Haydn Thomas
22 Ignacio Mieres
23 Josh Tatupu