Exeter Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter believes another tough Heineken Cup campaign can only be good for the long and short-term development of his side.
The Chiefs have come a long way in recent seasons, progressing from the RFU Championship to the Aviva Premiership and then the Heineken Cup in the space of just three years.
Exeter finished sixth in the league last season to secure a second successive Heineken Cup berth and have since been drawn against reigning champions RC Toulon, Glasgow Warriors and Cardiff Blues in Pool 2.
The lure of the Heineken Cup holders comes a year after the Chiefs faced 2012 winners Leinster and last season’s beaten finalists ASM Clermont Auvergne, as well as experienced Welsh outfit the Scarlets, in arguably the standout group of the tournament.
Taking on the best the continent has to offer was a massive fillip for the Devon-based outfit and Baxter admits he can’t wait to do it all over again when the competition returns this weekend.
“It’s really good for us. People have often asked me what the key is to how we’ve developed as a side, and the key is that you give your players as many big challenges as you can,” said Baxter. “They’re great fixtures and it’s a great reward for our supporters because they’ve supported us for a long time and they’re getting to see some fantastic games now. It’s all part of the on-going strategy of the club.
“Playing in the Heineken Cup, with the group that we’ve got, is going to be another fantastic challenge. It’ll be tough but we’ll be a better team because of it, I’m very confident of that. I said the same last year: we had a very tough Heineken Cup group but we were a better Premiership team in the second half of the season because of our experiences in Europe.
“We didn’t run away from that challenge, we weren’t scared of it, we faced it full on. We had some really tough games but we learnt a few lessons and we brought the things we’d learnt back into the Premiership. That’s exactly what we’ll do again.”
Exeter begin their Heineken Cup campaign against the Blues at Sandy Park on Sunday, before travelling to Glasgow a week later and then facing Jonny Wilkinson and co in a mouth-watering December double header.
And having won two of their six games and run Leinster close in Dublin in their debut campaign last time out, the Chiefs will no doubt be looking to improve on that showing over the coming months.
But while progress clearly continues to be a goal, Baxter insists his side won’t be getting ahead of themselves this season, either in Europe or the Premiership.
“We’re not going to get carried away with ourselves. It’s been fantastic for us to qualify for the Heineken Cup these past couple of seasons and that’s obviously very important to us but we’re realistic about the way you go about achieving that,” added Baxter, who is happy enough with his side’s three wins from games so far this season.
“We don’t have to win things this year – it would be nice to – but what we have to do is keep driving the club forward. The club are ambitious both on and off the field and it’s up to this group of players to decide when success happens. I think it will happen at some stage in the future but what we’ve got to decide as a group is how quickly it happens.
“I think we’ve got a really good work ethic here, a nice culture and a good group of players. It’s a group of players who are probably still undervalued in a lot of ways by people around the game. We don’t need to shake things up massively: if you’re in the Heineken Cup you’re a pretty good side.”