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Rob Baxter plays down historical significance as Exeter prepare to face Bristol

Exeter boss Rob Baxter has played down any historical significance as the Chiefs prepare for a west country reunion with Bristol on Friday.

It will be the clubs' first meeting since 2010, when Exeter secured promotion to English rugby's top flight by beating Bristol across two legs of the Championship final.

While Exeter subsequently established themselves as a major Aviva Premiership force, reaching last season's Twickenham final, Bristol only rejoined the elite earlier this year.

Ashton Gate, rather than the Memorial Stadium six years ago, will stage the derby encounter as Exeter target a win that would lift them three places to fourth.

"Obviously, it was a fantastic couple of games against Bristol, but the truth is it wasn't just that one-off occasion that got us into the Premiership," Baxter said.

"It was a big season all round for us, and the players at that time worked extremely hard to get us to that point.

"Inwardly, we approached the whole format really well and it culminated in us building performances right through to the final at Bristol.

"All the guys involved should be immensely proud of what they achieved, but the foundations of it all were put in place not just throughout that season, but also in the years before.

"Since that night, we have kept moving forward, and while we don't tend to harp back to it too much, I am aware that the older players - and myself - have talked about it as being one of the most important games in our history to date as it was the game that got us into the Premiership."

Bristol, after an encouraging opening weekend display against Harlequins, then shipped 102 points in their next two games, including a 70-22 drubbing by Wasps last Sunday.

But Baxter added: "If you ask me about Bristol, I think they are going alright.

"I am sure they felt unlucky to lose that first game against Harlequins, and then like us (this season) they went to Wasps and came up against a team that are bang on form.

"Friday will be a big game because it's against our nearest Premiership rivals.

"The thing I keep pushing with the lads is that it's a big Premiership game of rugby. Any time you win in this league you have done well, whether it's home or away, and that's the important thing to drive home.

"Week by week we have to go on to the field and play in a way that merits something out of the game for us. As I've said to the players, they have to be prepared to go to Bristol and work extremely hard."

Baxter hands starts to forwards Alec Hepburn, Mitch Lees and Dave Dennis, while Sam Hill features in midfield alongside Henry Slade and Harry Williams provides tighthead prop cover on the bench instead of suspended Tomas Francis.

Bristol rugby director Andy Robinson, meanwhile, has changed six of the pack on duty against Wasps, with Kyle Traynor, Gaston Cortes, James Phillips, Mark Sorenson, Jon Fisher and Jordan Crane all involved.

"The key messages to the squad this week have been to stick together, keep fighting and keep working hard," Robinson said.

"We know where we need to improve, and we're looking to embrace the challenge that Exeter will bring."


From Belfast Telegraph