For all the hype around Sale and Bristol, the pressure is all on Exeter Chiefs as the 2019/20 Gallagher Premiership season gets back underway and it’s up to them to prove they can handle it.
The signings of Manu Tuilagi and Semi Radradra, in particular, will have closed the gap between the chasing Sharks and Bears and the table-topping Chiefs, but the men from Devon remain significant favourites and they have to show they can deal with that now.
It is a different kind of pressure they face this time around as well. Exeter may have finished top of the Premiership table in the previous two campaigns but Saracens were always looming large as favourites when it came to the big games. Not any more.
This is Exeter’s time, as everyone has been saying since the salary cap punishments were imposed, but it isn’t easy to live up to the favourites tag.
Exeter have won the Premiership before, of course, but they arguably didn’t excel with the favourites tag in that 2017 final as they just edged past Wasps in extra-time. Three years on, they need to show they are the dominant force in English rugby, despite the moves being made by those around them.
The names of the 276 players who have made the matchday squads for the long-awaited rugby restart in Englandhttps://t.co/sny7gF2lWu
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 14, 2020
I remember losing two finals on the bounce in 2005 and 2006 when Leicester were favourites in most people’s eyes and the overwhelming feeling in the dressing room after beating Gloucester in the final in 2007 was one of relief. That will be the same for Exeter if they lift the trophy this year.
The Chiefs will surely finish in the top two and secure a home semi-final so you would expect to see them at Twickenham in October, but the play-offs bring a different sort of pressure as well.
Leicester won four titles in a row before the play-offs were introduced but it took four years of coming up empty-handed when the knockout stages came into being and people often forget that.
Exeter have been to the last four Premiership finals and a 25 per cent conversion rate isn’t great. Nobody will be putting more pressure on them than they are themselves but now is the time for them to translate consistently good regular season form into silverware.
It has been 23 weeks since we last saw Premiership action and it will be fascinating to see who comes back firing on all cylinders. On the face of it, Exeter are a bit unlucky because the chasing pack do all look stronger on paper and the long break will also be a leveller to some extent.
The Chiefs have strengthened themselves and Jonny Gray will be a major asset but the loss of Nic White could really hurt them. The likes of Stu Townsend and the Maunder brothers are all good players but they will miss White’s leadership as well as his star quality.
We began this season – an absolute age ago it seems – saying that this would be the most competitive Premiership season ever and the enforced break only seems to have made it more competitive on paper.
I expect the semi-finalists to come from the current top five teams but every team, obviously apart from Saracens, will believe they can make it if they can put a run together with games coming so thick and fast.
That may seem like a crazy thing to say with Leicester 15 points off fourth place and I can’t see it happening for them but, with Steve Borthwick in the building and some fresh faces in, even they will be believing.
Everyone has been training well and is looking good if you believe what you hear before a ball has been kicked but we all can’t wait to see rugby back to judge who actually looks the real deal.
Make no mistake about it, though, the target is on Exeter’s back. I still remember choking with Leicester against Sale in 2006 despite winning five other Premiership titles, and the Chiefs will be doing everything in their power to ensure they don’t suffer that feeling.
"There is absolutely no pressure on the salary cap. In fact, I’m delighted everybody thinks we are breaking the cap… we must be doing something right with the squad if that's the case”?
– @SaleSharksRugby owner Simon Orange speaking on @TheRugbyPod ?
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 13, 2020
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now