Northampton Saints v Exeter Chiefs preview

Fijian flyer Sireli Naqelevuki will make his first team debut for Exeter Chiefs in tomorrow’s Aviva Premiership Rugby clash with Northampton Saints at Franklin’s Gardens.

The 30-year-old winger, who signed recently from South African Super 14 outfit Stormers, is one of three team changes Rob Baxter has made to his starting line-up from that which went down 40-13 to Harlequins last Saturday.

Naqelevuki comes in on the right flank in place of Matt Jess, who drops to the bench, whilst the other changes see centre Phil Dollman and flanker Chad Slade both start because of the injuries sustained by Nic Sestaret and James Phillips during last weekend’s clash at the Twickenham Stoop.

However, much of the pre-match attention will be on Exeter’s newest recruit. Naqelevuki was given a brief 40-minute run out during Monday night’s A League fixture at Gloucester and he clearly showed enough during that cameo display to convince Baxter to give him the nod from the outset against the high flying Saints.

“It’s good to start and a big test for me because we are playing against a good side who are second in the league,” said Naqelevuki. “I enjoyed the 40 minutes I played [on Monday], it was a good first run out and the first chance for me to wear the Chiefs jersey. I thought I was going to play for the other 40, but the coaches told me to rest.

“I have got a start now and if I perform I can keep hold of the jersey, if I don’t I will lose it so I want to perform tomorrow.”

Whilst Naqelevuki is clearly relishing tomorrow’s tussle, so too are a number of other Chiefs, several of whom have strong links to the Northampton club.

Props Chris Budgen and Brett Sturgess are both former Saints players, as is assistant coach Ali Hepher,who spent eight years at Franklin’s Gardens and made 120 appearances, including starting the Heineken Cup final in 2000 when the Saints won.

Tomorrow’s match will be the first time he has tried to plot Northampton’s downfall since leaving his role as an academy coach to join the Chiefs in June last year.

Hepher is well aware of the challenge that awaits his current club this weekend, but even though the Chiefs have come unstuck on both away games so far this season, he is confident the players can produce a performance against Jim Mallinder’s men.

“I popped up to Northampton in the summer with the sevens, but that wasn’t quite the same,” said the former fly-half. “This was the one fixture I looked up straight away when they came out. It will be good fun to go back, it’s a good challenge – they’re on fire at the minute playing-wise so we’re going to have to put in a good performance this weekend to get something out of the game.

“As a coaching team they’ve been outstanding, you can’t fault where they’ve taken the club in the last few years. As a team they have some real quality across the board, but we’ve got quality as well and it will be exciting to see how we fare. There’s no doubt our guys have the ability to compete with the best, as they’ve shown this season so far.”

And despite their setback in the capital last weekend, Hepher insists the players have reacted positively this past week and will travel in good spirit.

“We always knew we would probably get results like that, even though we didn’t want to get them,” Hepher admitted. “That was going to be the reality of where we’ve come from and where we are now.

“It hasn’t been too difficult this week, the guys are in good spirits. The things we’ve learned from the weekend are easy things to fix, that’s the key. We’ve learned a hell of a lot from Saturday and hopefully we’ll take it on board as quickly as possible, i.e this Saturday, and we’ll be better for it.”

Northampton Saints’ 100 per cent winning record in Aviva Premiership Rugby was shot down at Saracens on Sunday. The Saints have suffered just two defeats at Franklin’s Gardens in any competi

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