Gallagher Premiership fans worried that the top-flight in England could suffer this season without having the rivalry of Exeter versus Saracens to keep them entertained could well have an alternative rivalry to savour – Exeter against their nearest geographical rivals Bristol, who visit Sandy Park on Saturday for a top-of-the-table clash.
Both teams are running joint first on the ladder with 20 points apiece after four wins from five outings and there is every indication that this latest meeting will be just as close as fixtures in recent years since Bristol returned to the Premiership following a season in the Championship.
The margins in their last four games have been tight – 3, 3, 5 and 2 points, with Exeter taking the spoils on three occasions to Bristol’s one. Now they meet with first place on the table at stake and Exeter boss Rob Baxter can’t wait to see how it all pans out.
“It wouldn’t be sport if there weren’t rivalries and there weren’t people looking at each other and going this is a big game,” he enthused. “Exeter against Bristol, if you look at the last couple of seasons and last season in particular, is a big game.
“Both teams will certainly want to make some kind of a statement but the biggest statement we both want to make is we show we can beat each other. That is the reality. You want to show that which is why Wasps’ win last week was a big win for them.
"Pound for pound he is one of the best tacklers I have seen"
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 9, 2021
“That last game they played against us they lost in the final and they wanted to put down a marker that they could beat Exeter Chiefs and they did that very well. For us, 100 per cent we want to put down a marker that we can beat Bristol here at Sandy Park.
“Interestingly enough they came to Sandy Park last year and beat us early in the season but then we went to their place and beat them. These things, they have that edge and a bit of spice and it would be a lie if I didn’t say there were some markers we wanted to put down. Of course, we do but that is what will make it a really good game of rugby… there is no reason why it shouldn’t be a good game of rugby and hopefully, that is what it will become.”
It was May 2010 when Exeter gained promotion to the Premiership at the expense of Bristol, winning a play-off final at the Memorial Ground. While the Chiefs have used the past decade to go on and become a leading force in the game, culminating in October’s Premiership and Champions Cup double, it wasn’t until Pat Lam took over and returned Bristol to the Premiership in 2018 that they began to take impressive strides.
Baxter has been impressed with their attitude, Bristol joining the Premiership with the view to achieving great things rather looking over their shoulder and playing with the fear of relegation. “I always felt that it was time in the Premiership that helped us more than anything else,” said Baxter, reflecting on how Chiefs developed when they were first promoted.
“So actually the single most important thing for us to become better in our first year or two in the Premiership was staying there and not just staying there, but staying there with a confidence relatively early in the season that you weren’t going to be relegated because that is how you progress.
“What stops you progressing more as a team than anything else is that looking over your shoulder, worrying about where the next result is coming, where the next points are coming, and what Bristol have managed to do very well is remove those doubts quite quickly.
“That is what allows you to progress quickly because you then develop your game and develop things without that threat and fear. Bristol settled in very quickly when they got back in the Premiership and that is allowing them to develop and work on aspects of their game.
“They are a team that can score points very quickly if you get things wrong but Newcastle showed last weekend they have got some weaknesses you can exploit if you play well and Wasps showed the same with us.”
THE CHIEFS-BEARS RIVALRY
August 2019: Bristol 22 Exeter 25
November 2019: Exeter 17 Bristol 20
January 2019: Exeter 14 Bristol 9
November 2018: Bristol 29 Exeter 31
“Another incentive was cash… when you’re on 25 grand in the Championship, that [Rob Baxter's half-time bonus] becomes a big, big deal”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 26, 2020
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now