When Exeter last visited Ashton Gate they returned down the M5 as the new champions of Europe. No silverware is at stake this time but victory against the current Premiership leaders, Bristol, beneath the Friday night lights would serve as a warning to all that they will not relinquish their domestic crown without a fight.
With every chance of the same two clubs meeting in the first all-West Country Twickenham finale since Bath played Gloucester in the Pilkington Cup final in 1990, the fixture has also been firmly on Exeter’s radar since their 20-7 defeat against the Bears at Sandy Park in January. Add in the presence of the British & Irish Lions coaches Warren Gatland and Neil Jenkins, monitoring Jack Nowell’s first start since last October among other things, and there is plenty on the line.
While both sides have significant injury holes – Exeter’s big back-rower Dave Ewers has a calf problem while the Bears will be missing Semi Radradra, Callum Sheedy, Harry Randall, Ben Earl and Nathan Hughes – an intriguing meeting of minds also looms in the respective coaching boxes.
Bristol’s director of rugby, Pat Lam, and the Chiefs’ head coach, Ali Hepher, go back a long way, having both been members of the Northampton team who conquered Europe in 2000. Hepher started at fly-half opposite Ronan O’Gara in the 9-8 final win over Munster and Lam always had a hunch his old friend and teammate would develop into a successful coach.
“I knew then he had a good rugby brain and we worked really well together,” said Lam. “I was the captain, he was fighting with Paul Grayson for the No 10 jersey and that 8-9-10 spine of the team spent a lot of time strategising and running the game together. It was a big part of that success.”
A scheduled 20-year squad reunion had to be abandoned last year because of Covid but the pair have always remained in touch. “When I was coaching the Blues and he was on his way up, he came down to Auckland to see what we were doing in the southern hemisphere,” Lam said. “I always look forward to seeing him at games and it is no surprise at all that he is doing really well.”
The next challenge for Hepher will be to find fresh ways to neutralise the dangerous and reliably pacy Bears back division. Lam’s decision to hand the No 10 shirt to Max Malins feels like another statement of intent, ensuring the in-form England player and the returning Charles Piutau are both on the field from the start.
There is also a tantalising duel at outside centre where Piers O’Conor, enjoying such a fine season, will be up against Henry Slade, another player hoping to convince Gatland that the Lions cannot depart without him. Both sides, though, know the forward tussle will be pivotal: the return of Bristol’s talismanic captain, Steven Luatua, is significant in that regard with Scotland’s Sam Skinner filling the sizeable blindside gap left by Ewers.
One more eye-catching performance from Sam Simmonds may also be enough to secure the No 8 Lions berth but, with Bristol 12 points ahead of their rivals with six regular-season rounds to go, the Chiefs’ director of rugby, Rob Baxter, is more concerned about his side finishing the domestic campaign strongly.
“I’ll be honest, we’re not playing at our best yet,” Baxter said. “However, I can definitely see us on an upward curve, which is important at this time of year. It’s a bit like when you are in a car, you can see we’re starting to go through the gears.”