It may have been a while since Exeter Chiefs were last in Aviva Premiership action, but assistant coach Ali Hepher insists his side are “fully focused” on the task ahead as they prepare to welcome Harlequins to Sandy Park for the first time this Saturday (3pm). With outings in the Amlin Challenge and LV= Cup having dominated the past few weeks, a return to the nitty-gritty of the Premiership is something that Hepher and the Chiefs are clearly relishing.
Up against a Harlequins side that have won their last eight games in all competitions, the Chiefs, who lost the corresponding fixture 40-13 back in September, could hardly have asked for a much tougher return to top flight duty. That said, Hepher says coming up against one of the division’s form sides is just part and parcel of Premier life.
“They are a quality side, they’re going well, but equally we have progressed since we last played them and hopefully we’ll have learnt a few lessons,” said Hepher. “Our aim for Saturday is to bring a good quality performance. The guys have been training really well, they’ve been enthusiastic, energetic and they are very excited about this game.
“Harlequins are a good side and we’ve seen that throughout the season. They are the form side at the minute, but at the same time we are confident in our own ability, especially at home. We have a good record here and we’ll certainly challenge and front up to any team that comes here, so it will be a great opportunity for us to be the first side to beat them in a while.
“As we have said all season, we just want to push up the league and get as many wins as we can. The Amlin Cup was a great experience and so was the LV=, but we always knew the Premiership was our priority, so we’re fully focused on this weekend and this next bunch of games.”
Certainly the Chiefs have made the most of the recent Cup competitions to ensure that a large percentage of their squad are up to speed and ready for the rigours of the Premiership. Hepher and head coach Rob Baxter have watched on intently as many of the players stepped up to the mark with powerful displays.
“I think pretty much all the guys have had a run out,” explained Hepher. “Everyone has pushed their case, it has certainly been difficult in a few positions but that’s a great problem to have. When guys who are playing well you can make different selections, it’s not like you’re forced down one route. That’s great for us, the guys have had good game time and we’re excited about the weekend.”
Indeed, one man who has made the most of his chance to shine is winger Matt Jess, whose two-try display in the narrow loss at Montpellier has propel him into the starting XV.
Jess, who has scored 34 tries in 59 appearances, is set to make only his second Premiership start of the campaign, although ironically his other was in the game against Quins at the Twickenham Stoop.
“We always said performance and balance will be the two things we’ll select on and Jessy’s performances have been spot-on,” admitted Hepher. “I always expected him to come through, it’s taken him a little bit of time to adjust but we saw in Montpellier the quality he has got. He gives us that extra pace on the field. I’m very excited about seeing him play because he deserves his spot, he’s earned it.”
The inclusion of Jess in the starting line-up caps a special week for the 26-year-old, who earlier this week penned a new two-year deal with the club. Team-mates Phil Dollman and Nic Sestaret, both of whom are included in the Exeter squad, have also agreed similar terms. The trio’s decision to stay at Sandy Park means that the Chiefs have now agreed contracts with 16 of their current squad.
Other team changes to Exeter’s last Premiership line-up, which ended in a 37-23 defeat at Gloucester, see Neil Clark return at hooker in place of Chris Whitehead, whilst the experienced Chris Budgen gets the nod at tight-head ahead of Hoani Tui.
EXETER CHIEFS TEAM TO FACE HARLEQUINS
15 Luke Arscott
14 Matt Jess
13 Jason Shoemark
12 Sireli Naqelevuki
11 Nic Sestaret
10 Gareth Steenson
9 Haydn Thomas
1 Brett Sturgess
2 Neil Clark
3 Chris Budgen
4 Tom Hayes (capt)
5 James Hanks
6 Tom Johnson
7 James Scaysbrook
8 Richard Baxter
16 Chris Whitehead
17 Ben Moon
18 Hoani Tui
19 Chad Slade
20 James Phillips
21 Junior Poluleuligaga
22 Ryan Davis
23 Phil Dollman