Exeter Chiefs director of rugby Rob Baxter admits his Gallagher Premiership leaders are entering uncharted territory ahead of the league’s first set of midweek fixtures. The Chiefs meet second-placed Bristol at Ashton Gate holding an eight-point advantage over the Bears, but both camps ring the changes with pressure on squads during the congested run-in to this coronavirus-hit campaign.

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Exeter make 14 changes from the team that won at Sale on Friday, while Bristol make nine alterations to the side that secured a seventh successive Premiership victory over Gloucester in round 15.

“It’s a little bit of a trip into the unknown,” Baxter told the Chiefs’ official website.

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“This is our first midweek fixture, which is interesting in itself, and it’s our first short turnaround from a game at the weekend.

“When you look at it, it’s probably going to be the first time where teams will genuinely make a lot of changes, because there are the regulations for these midweek blocks where you have that element of limiting game minutes for players and also that no players can start all three games.

“Going to Bristol at any time should be exciting, but because it’s a top-of-the-table clash in the Premiership it just adds to everything.”

Only wing Olly Woodburn, making his third start since lockdown, remains from the Sale win, while Bristol recall Charles Piutau, Luke Morahan and Piers O’Conor to an exciting backline that again includes Fijian powerhouse Semi Radradra.

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Bears director of rugby Pat Lam played down the significance of the match, saying: “As far as we’re concerned it’s just another game where five points are available as we all scramble to try and get into that top four for the play-offs.

“The only way we can compete with Exeter is to be a team ourselves and get our jobs right. All the other stuff is not going to win us the game.”

On a night of crunch meetings, third-placed Wasps host Sale Sharks, in fourth, at the Ricoh Arena.

Wasps have won their two games in impressive fashion since rugby returned and boss Lee Blackett has named all but one of the XV who started the success at Northampton Saints on August 16.

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Jeff Toomaga-Allen replaces the injured Kieran Brookes from that Franklin’s Gardens victory.

Sale shuffle their squad with nine changes to their matchday 23, and director of rugby Steve Diamond has called for an improvement after defeats to Harlequins and Exeter.

“We’ve dropped two places in two weeks. If that continues we’re out of the title race,” Diamond said.

“We need to put a sharp halt to that decline and pick some points up. A lot has been made of the lockdown and we were in good form before it.

“I made a suggestion we didn’t want to be like Leicester City, who went into lockdown as the form team and didn’t do much after.”

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