Head coach Rob Baxter will welcome back his squad, including the majority of his summer signings on Thursday morning for day one of their latest campaign in the Aviva Premiership.
Last season the Chiefs impressed many during their first-ever season within English rugby’s top flight, finishing the year in eighth spot and with 10 league victories to their name.
Irishman Hayes, who is set to begin his fourth season at Sandy Park, knows the new 2011/12 season will offer just as tough a challenge to him and his team-mates, but he remains confident the club can continue to show their season by season improvement.
“It’s not about aiming for a higher position, but about improving as a rugby side and moving the whole club forward,” he said. “If that brings a higher position then great. Rugby is getting harder and faster and improving all the time. If we can improve quicker than other teams we can finish higher in the table, if other clubs improve quicker than us we may improve but still finish in a lower position.”
Alongside full-back Luke Arscott, Hayes played every minute of every game in the Premiership last term and his efforts were rewarded when he was named as the skipper of the ESPN Premiership Team of the Year. However, the 31-year-old lock insists he will not be resting on his laurels and says the fact Baxter has added two new locks in Aly Muldowney and Peter Short during the close season will mean he will have to keep his standards just as high, if not higher.
“I think every individual has to try to improve, that’s going to be the big thing to keep improving as a squad,” he said. “Last year is last year, it’s gone now and we have to start looking forward and improving all the time. There’s still a long way to go and no one is assured of their place, we’ll all be fighting for the jerseys during pre-season.
“One of the good things about the squad in the last few years is that the standard has improved,” he said. “Rob said last year that he was disappointed at some of the players he couldn’t select as their contribution was brilliant.
“The quality of the squad was so good that even the quality of the training was so much better because you had quality players across the board. It looks like that is going to improve again this season, I think the two boys signed in the second row are going to take us forward and they may take a place next season or will certainly be pushing for a place.”
And as Hayes knows from past experience, pre-season with the Chiefs will be gruelling and he expects this year’s programme to be no different.
“There is always an excitement about the new season starting and we have a couple of new players to bring in as well,” he said. “We’ll be putting our game plan in place and one of the good things about this squad is that we enjoy doing that and we have a good input into it. The coaches are very good at getting us involved and talking about things and we’ll make the most of the time we have available before that first game against Connacht.”
A return to his Irish homeland will be the first of three pre-season tests the Chiefs will face in preparation for the start of the new league season on September 3.
Tackling Connacht, who have qualified for this year’s Heineken Cup, is nothing new for the forward who prior to playing for the Chiefs and Plymouth Albion in England, previously ran out for Irish sides Shannon and Munster.
“I’m glad we’re going over there to play them,” he said. “It’s taking us all away from home in pre-season and getting us used to preparing for away games. It’ll certainly be a good test, Connacht are a good side and have been knocking on the door of the
Heineken Cup for a while. They’ll be looking to have a good year and will want to start well against us.”
Before then, however, Hayes will have his eyes focused on tomorrow’s fixture announcement at 12 noon. Last season the Chiefs opened up their inaugural season in the Premiership by defeating Gloucester at Sandy Park.
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He added: “Last year, when it was our first season in the Premiership, it was when the fixtures came out that it really sunk it we were in the Premiership. It will be interesting to see who we have got and when this year but I don’t think it is going to change the way we attack games or approach games.
“If we don’t have many players selected for the World Cup and other teams do it could work in our favour who we play during that period, but it won’t affect the way we prepare for the season. We said last year we would use the Championship finals as a launch pad and we will look to become a better rugby side again this season.”