EXETER Chiefs taking on the Cornish Pirates has long been a celebrated local rivalry, and for Rob Baxter and his charges, the added spark that comes from a derby will only fuel the fire as they continue to build upon the excellent start they have made to the 2023/24 campaign, writes Olivia Tomlinson. 

Whilst this fixture's zenith may have been in battles fought over 20 years ago, the excitement that builds around this match, particularly in a competitive environment as opposed to pre-season 'friendlies', has been palpable this week.

Baxter has often spoken about the Premiership Cup as an opportunity for him to find his best team ahead of the league season commencing in a month’s time, and after last week’s demolition job over an inexperienced Bristol side, he will be looking to continue this building process against the Pirates this Saturday.

“At the end of the day we’ve got to show Pirates plenty of respect, there have been plenty of times throughout our history where they have come to Sandy Park and done very well against us, we’re not taking anything for granted," he said.

The link between the Exeter Chiefs and Cornish Pirates is one of professional development in this modern era, and over many years the Mennaye Field has been a proving ground for some of the stars who have gone on to make their name, not just for the Chiefs, but with higher international honours. 

Baxter was quick to praise the work being done by both Alan Paver and Gavin Cattle in developing players and putting together an incredibly competitive team that will challenge the Chiefs, as they did Bath in their opening fixture of the Cup last weekend.

“They were pushing all game, for us personally it was great to see the likes of Ben Grubb playing well and scoring a good try and Iwan Jenkins did well when he came on and found some space with the kicking game which was good.

"They mixed their game up very well and created some pressure for Bath. Different numbers in the defensive line, they had a very solid kicking game and a very solid kick return process and obviously what they did particularly well in the first half was to cause them a lot of problems in the set piece.

"We’re really looking forward to the game because we know it’s going to be tough and we’re looking forward to what we hope will be a big crowd.  I really hope that a lot of Cornish Pirates supporters come and really enjoy their day!”

It’s not just on the field and amongst the players that the victory over Bristol resonated. The Chiefs' director of rugby was quick to point out this week that the atmosphere in Sandy Park for the match was one of real excitement.

“There was a real buzz around the ground, even just walking into the stadium early. We’ve put a few things in place, the players after the match went up into the members bar and the main supporters bar," he said.

"We’ve probably built some habits as a result of the Covid regulations and we’re looking to break some of those habits and start looking at ourselves as a rugby club where we get to know our supporters and spend some time with them.”

It isn’t wholesale changes for Baxter this week, tinkering with the 23 who went so well first time out.

Ethan Roots has made a big impression since his arrival from the Ospreys in the summer, and he will lead the team from blind-side, with young Italian U20s star Ross Vintcent set to continue his rise by earning the starting berth at number eight.  Vintcent looked all-action off the bench against Bath and will be one for Chiefs' fans to keep an eye on.

Rus Tuima, who spent time down with the Pirates last season, moves up from the bench to start in the second-row alongside Lewis Pearson, whilst Dan Frost swaps with Jack Yeandle to start at hooker, after the Taunton-born flyer made a strong impression in the second 40 minutes against the Bears. 

Behind the scrum, it’s a new midfield for the Chiefs.  Will Haydon-Wood get’s his first start at fly-half and will be looking to send a message to Baxter and Ali Hepher that he deserves a run in the 10n jersey.  In the centres, Chiefs fans will be delighted to see Ollie Devoto and Tom Hendrickson partnering up, after both have had a tough time with injuries recently.

Tom Wyatt, Ben Hammersley and Josh Hodge continue their back-three duties after ripping apart the Bristol defence with devastating counter-attacking in the first round.

It promises to be another excellent test for this evolving Chiefs outfit, and with the Pirates team likely to field a number of Exeter-registered players, there won’t be much love lost as both sides look to prove their place as top-dogs of the South West. 

Chiefs: Josh Hodge, Ben Hammersley, Tom Hendrickson, Ollie Devoto, Tom Wyatt, Will Haydon-Wood, Tom Cairns, Scott Sio, Dan Frost, Ehren Painter, Rus Tuima, Lewis Pearson, Ethan Roots (capt), Jacques Vermeulen, Ross Vintcent. Replacements: Jack Yeandle, Billy Keast, Josh Iosefa-Scott, Jack Dunne, Aidon Davis, Niall Armstrong, Harvey Skinner, Joe Hawkins.