A New Year begins in earnest for the Exeter Chiefs tomorrow and assistant coach Ali Hepher is hopeful his side will get 2013 off to a bang by seeing off visiting Northampton Saints at Sandy Park (3pm).
After a Christmas period which could – and probably should – have brought a sack-full of points from clashes with Gloucester and Bath, the Devon club ended up more with leftovers, rather than the rewards their hard-working efforts merited.
The boot of England international Freddie Burns ultimately denied the Chiefs in a ding-dong battle at Kingsholm, before a late penalty try last week ensured Bath headed home with a share of the spoils.
Although winless in both clashes, Hepher insists the mood within the Chiefs camp remains as buoyant as ever, especially as this weekend’s encounter is the last in the top flight for a month.
"Saturday is a big game for sure, but it’s one we are certainly looking forward to," said Hepher. "It’s our last game in the Premiership for a while, so we want to try and make sure we have some momentum to take back into the competition in February. We’ve got four weeks of Cup action to come in both the Heineken and LV=, but the Premiership remains our priority.
"That’s why we want to get a good performance in this week because if we do, then it will set us up nicely in terms of our position and put us in the race for one of those top four spots."
Currently Exeter are seventh in the standings with Northampton a point and a place above them. However, fourth-placed Gloucester are just three points ahead of the Chiefs with Wasps also in the mix following their latest win at London Welsh a week ago.
As a former Saint himself, Hepher knows all too well of the qualities Northampton will bring to the West-country and with the visitors smarting following a narrow defeat to Saracens, this latest match-up promises to be a belter.
"They were very unlucky last week and could easily have come away with a win," admitted Hepher, who was a Heineken Cup winner with the Saints in 2000. "Any side who goes to Ulster and wins is no bad side. We know they will be tough; they’ll be strong up front; physical and that we will have to front up from the outset. At the same time, we are focused mainly on ourselves and making sure we do our jobs right.
"It’s exciting for me, of course it is, simply because of my links with the club. I’ll no doubt get a bit of banter from back home and I still have a lot of friends at the club, but equally it’s another game and you prepare in the same way as you would any other game. We’ve had a good, full training week this week and looking at things we feel fully prepared for the game."
As always the Chiefs have dissected the threats of the opposition in some detail, whilst at the same time performing their only series of tweaks to their own game plan.
And Hepher admits that although certain issues were flagged up in recent weeks, overall the Exeter coaching staff are content with the progress being made out on the pitch.
"We are pleased with the way things are going," he added. "At the moment we are top of table for tries scored and we’re playing some really good rugby. We are attacking in a different way at the minute, but equally we change our attack week by week, depending on opposition and conditions.
"Looking at our games the tactical battles we’ve been very good at. We dominated territory at the weekend against Bath and we had dominance in possession for long spells, so all the stats virtually went for us. The only one that probably didn’t was that we gave away too many penalties and that allowed Bath in at the end.
"We’ve talked about discipline and driving it down a bit, but the good thing is that not too many of those penalties were crazy ones and we can address most of them. The big thing is that we look to cut them down this week and take the pressure off ourselves and put the pressure on the opposition. Other than that, the rest of our game is in good shape."
Ahead of kick-off the Chiefs have been forced to tinker slightly with their starting line-up, including replacing former Northampton prop Brett Sturgess who broke his arm in last weekend’s 12-12 draw with Bath.
Into the number one jersey comes Ben Moon, whilst alongside him at hooker Neil Clark also starts in place of Simon Alcott. Other changes to the pack see Tom Johnson and Ben White recalled into the back-row, whilst James Hanks steps up to partner Dean Mumm in the Exeter engine room. Behind, the solitary change sees Ian Whitten brought into the midfield in place of Jason Shoemark.
On the bench, there is a first Premiership involvement for hooker Jack Yeandle, Welsh international Craig Mitchell returns for the first time since rupturing his bicep in the away defeat at London Welsh back in September, and Fijian force Sireli Naqelevuki is also included.