Gareth Steenson says Exeter Chiefs can expect to face a fired-up Bristol outfit when the two collide in tonight’s Westcountry derby at Ashton Gate (7:45pm).
Facing off competitively for the first time in six years, the Chiefs playmaker is reading little into the current fortunes of Andy Robinson’s side, who have yet to win in three games since their return to the top flight this season.
Last weekend’s 70-22 defeat at in-form Wasps represented Bristol’s lowest point yet, but Steenson believes a return to home soil, coupled with the cut and thrust of a derby occasion, will ensure this evening’s opponents will come out firing.
Add into the mix that this will also be the first time Bristol and the Chiefs have squared up since the 2010 RFU Championship Play-Off Final, when Steenson’s heroics help boot the Devonians into the Premiership for the first time, and it has all the makings of a Friday night classic.
“I’m fully expecting them to come out full throttle and we have to show our best game possible if we want to go out there and get a result,” warned Steenson.
“It’s a game they’re going to be very excited about and it’s one that we’re going to be excited about too.
“We’re expecting a big crowd from our fans who are able to travel up, so it’s one to really look forward to – on a Friday night under the lights as well, in a big city where rugby is a bit of a hotbed.
“It’s going to be an exciting evening. The last time we played them was obviously the final and the buzz about the place was huge, so if you put another six years on top of that, with them wanting to see Premiership rugby, they’re going to be excited about that.”
With it being the first meeting between the two sides since the Chiefs’ promotion, pre-match talk has obviously been focussed on that night at the Memorial Stadium and Steenson has great memories of it, but he felt Rob Baxter’s men would always end up in the Premiership, no matter if it was in 2010 or a later year.
“Obviously it was a great experience for everyone involved in the club at the time and for us personally,” he said. “I’m sure there’s a lot of people in Bristol who are still hurting about that, more so with the supporters as they’ve suffered a few hard losses since then, but for us obviously it was a great experience.
“I remember very much at the time thinking that we were going to do it, so I never let myself think anything but that we’d be playing in the Premiership the following year after that.
“If things had changed, we might have got into the Premiership the following year or it might have taken us a few years to do it but I always felt the club would get to where we are now and obviously we want to keep progressing and keep pushing on.”
Since being in the Premiership, though, the Chiefs have flourished year on year and are now widely regarded as one of the division’s top sides, having come runners-up to Saracens in last season title race.
That added expectancy on all and sundry at Sandy Park is obvious and having picked up their first win of the season against Harlequins, Steenson is keen for him and his team-mates to kick on with another big performance just up the M5.
“Last week was a really good win for us, but now we have to follow it up again,” said the Dungannon-born back. “There are still one or two areas of our game that we need to sharpen up on and that starts again on Friday.”
And whilst the Chiefs will want to improve so too will Bristol, who will be seeking a response of sorts following their humbling at the Ricoh Arena last Sunday.
“That’s just the way the games go in the Premiership and we’ve been on the receiving end of a couple of games like that as well, so we kind of know what it feels like,” added Steenson. “They were chasing the game against Wasps and, all of a sudden, mistakes happen.
“As I said, I’m expecting to see them come out firing at us on Friday night, so we have to be ready to meet that threat.”