There is palpable excitement in the South-West corner of England, where Exeter Chiefs are preparing for their first season in rugby’s top flight.
In recent years, the club that is relegated from the Premiership has been able to bounce straight back up again, but Exeter managed to buck that trend last season by beating Bristol to the title.
The Chiefs had led the Championship during the first part of the season before falling behind Bristol at the end of the ‘regular’ season, and their clinical and ruthless performance in the two-legged final was a surprise to many as they won promotion to the Aviva Premiership.
Usually the team promoted from the Championship knows what to expect: Bristol, Harlequins, Leeds, Northampton had all been there before when they regained their place in the upper echelon, but it’s all new to Exeter and that adds an extra dimension of excitement about the new season.
The Chiefs have been busy strengthening their squad over the summer, tempting full-back Luke Arscott and Number 8 James Phillips from rivals Bristol and signing Bath’s Ryan Davis and the ex-Bath player Andrew Higgins to form the backbone of their side.
Fitness coach Paddy Anson and fellow former Royal Marines Mark Twiggs and Dave Silvester have been studying their new Premiership rivals and identifying areas of improvement for their own players – strength and fitness are obviously key areas where they’ll have to match or better their opposition, and sadly there is no substitute for hard work.
Pre-season training has been fairly unpleasant by all accounts – including Unforgiving Fridays – but it sounds like they will start the season in good shape, and not surprisingly, the players can’t wait for their first Premiership fixture at home to Gloucester in September.
Sandy Park was one of the few Championship grounds that would have passed the Premiership entry criteria, and the 10,000-seater stadium will no doubt be packed to the rafters for their season opener. The crowd could play a big part in the Chiefs’ fortunes, and if visiting teams find it difficult to win away at Exeter, they should avoid the drop. There is a fanatical west country following, and the players have been out and about enhancing their profile in the community to further build that supporter base.
The squad recently spent a day on Exmouth Beach – an hour of canoeing, paddling a surfboard and swimming was on the fitness agenda before a slightly more light-hearted sandcastle-building competition with local children and holidaymakers invited to join in. They’ll now enjoy a week of rest before building up to their pre-season fixtures against Cardiff Blues, Cornish Pirates and Llanelli Scarlets in August.
Leeds’ successful campaign to avoid relegation last season was based fundamentally on two things: squad fitness and relentless determination. The Chiefs will be aiming for the same result, and with their partisan crowd and a little bit of luck along the way, they might just survive – I for one hope that they do.