Exeter coach Rob Baxter excited by testing Aviva Premiership schedule
Exeter boss Rob Baxter is relishing the prospect of a demanding 10-week Aviva Premiership fixture block that promises to shape this season's play-off picture.
Starting with Sunday's game at Worcester, the next time Exeter take a break from Premiership action will be on April 9 when they face European Champions Cup quarter-final opponents Wasps.
With many top-flight clubs, Exeter included, also having to manage the absence of key players involved in this season's RBS 6 Nations Championship, it will be a testing time.
But Baxter, whose team held second spot in the Premiership before this weekend's games, said: "This is a big opportunity for us.
"We spent a lot of time in pre-season working on rehab and pre-hab and making sure everything we did, especially in terms of our recovery, was right.
"We talked a lot about this being a different kind of season to normal, but we said the teams who thrive through this 10-week block will be the teams who will ultimately thrive in the Premiership this season.
"We have spent probably six months preparing for this 10 weeks.
"And although we would have liked to have got to this stage without some of the long-term injuries that we've picked up, we've got here now and we are really excited about where we are and what w e have done so far.
"Now, we have to back ourselves as a team to come through this period the strongest.
"Yes, there are going to be some challenges, including keeping our freshness and our enjoyment factor going, but we are going to go at it flat out. We are going to challenge other teams around us to see if they can keep up with us."
Centre Sam Hill and hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie both return from England pre-Six Nations training to feature on Exeter's bench at Sixways, while Italy centre Michele Campagnaro and Wales prop Tomas Francis both start, with scrum-half Will Chudley back from injury and lock Jonny Hill handed a full Premiership debut.
Worcester captain GJ van Velze makes a first Premiership appearance since late November, and is among several changes for the Warriors, with wing Bryce Heem back in action, Luke Baldwin featuring at scrum-half and fly-half Tom Heathcote and lock Darren Barry returning after injuries.
Baxter added: "We have looked at Worcester a lot recently, and people will be aware there have been quite a few tight losses for them.
"I look at their games, and a lot of what they do is very good and well-structured. They have laid some good foundations, and I think that is what makes them a side that is in every game they play."
Worcester rugby director Dean Ryan, meanwhile, accepts that Exeter will pose a considerable threat to his team. The clubs are currently separated by 22 Premiership points.
"I am a big admirer of what Exeter have done," Ryan said. "They are going well in the league and are into the European quarter-finals.
"They maintain performances week in, week out and are genuine Premiership title contenders. Therefore, they are a serious threat for us to try and get a result against."
In Sunday's other league encounter, bottom club Newcastle show two changes from the side last involved in Premiership action on January 10, with Italy Test wing Giamba Venditti returning to the starting line-up and prop Taione Vea also featuring against Kingston Park visitors Harlequins.
Scrum-half Tito Tebaldi makes his first league start for Quins, taking the number nine shirt with Danny Care on England duty and Karl Dickson recovering from a hand injury that is expected to sideline him for up to 10 weeks. Fly-half Nick Evans captains the side.