Fijian powerhouse Nemani Nadolo will be handed his first Aviva Premiership start when Exeter Chiefs play host to Northampton Saints at Sandy Park on Sunday (3pm).
The 21-stone winger had a brief run off the bench during last weekend’s narrow 12-9 defeat to Bath, but he will be on the field from the outset as Rob Baxter’s side look to rediscover their winning formula at the first attempt.
The inclusion of the 23-year-old back is one of three changes the home side have made to their side from that which had tackled Bath. Nadolo comes in for Matt Jess, who drops to the bench; Phil Dollman takes over in the centre in place of the rested Jason Shoemark; whilst the sole change in the pack sees Chad Slade replace James Hanks, who is still feeling the effects of a blow he took last time out. Slade’s place on the bench is filled by Dave Gannon.
Nadolo’s inclusion means the Chiefs will now have two imposing Fijian stars within their back division – the other being 17st 1llb former Stormers star Sireli Naqelevuki, who ironically made his first start for Exeter against Northampton in the corresponding fixture at Franklin’s Gardens back in October.
The Saints won that encounter 27-21 – having earlier led 27-9. A spirited fightback that day from the Devon club saw them score late tries through Luke Arscott and former Northampton favourite Chris Budgen to earn a well deserved losing bonus point.
For Nadolo just being part of the Chiefs match-day starting XV is something he is keen to savour. Signed from Top 14 French side Bourgoin at the end of January, last Saturday’s fleeting appearance was the first time he had experienced a full house at Sandy Park and he was suitably impressed.
“I played two minutes last week and even that was awesome,” said Nadolo, who is cousin of former Australian international LotI Tuqiri.
Now, though, Nadolo is aiming to have a similar impact on English rugby as that of Naqelevuki, who has scored three tries in 12 appearances so far.
“Sireli has been playing some good footy, I think he was just named the club’s player of the month,” Nadolo said. “He’s made yards on yards. With me as a player of the same size, I want to work towards getting over the gain line like he does.
“It’s good that he’s in the team because it makes me want to work even harder – there aren’t many clubs around here with two Fijians playing in the same team. It’s awesome, another exciting part of the game is playing alongside your fellow countryman, and I’ll be looking to him for guidance out there.”
Lining up alongside the two Fijian internationals will be some more familiar faces to Northampton followers. Props Budgen and Brett Sturgess have both previously played for the Saints, whilst Exeter’s assistant coach Ali Hepher is himself a European Cup winner with the club.
Discussing this weekend’s encounter, Hepher admits he is relishing the chance of locking horns with his former employers, who come into the game having not won in the Premiership since November 26 when they defeated London Irish 35-23.
Since then Jim Mallinder’s men have endured a miserable run of results in the top flight, losing five successive games on the bounce. Hepher, though, is wary of Sunday’s opposition and knows that the Chiefs will have to be on top of their game from the outset.
“”They’ve had a few defeats but they’ll bounce through that, they’ve still got quality players throughout the side,” said Hepher. “They’ll push on towards the end of the season, we’ve just got to make sure they don’t start that push at the weekend. They’re a good quality side, coached well, and even the guys who come in will put in a good performance I’m sure.”
Although relegated out of the Premiership for one season, Hepher admits Northampton – who defeated Exeter on every occasion during their brief stint in the old National League One – are a good club template for the Chiefs to try to replicate.
“They’re a hell of a club, they’ve been established for a while now and they’re challenging for major honours this year. They’re a good template to follow, we’re obviously a couple of years behind them, but hopefully it’s a path we can follow.”
EXETER CHIEFS TEAM TO FACE NORTHAMPTON SAINTS
15 Luke Arscott
14 Nemani Nadolo
13 Phil Dollman
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 Chad Slade
6 Tom Johnson
7 James Scaysbrook
8 Richard Baxter
16 Simon Alcott
17 Ben Moon
18 Ignacio Elosu
19 Dave Gannon
20 James Phillips
21 Junior Poluleuligaga
22 Ignacio Mieres
23 Matt Jess