AFTER five tough matches in the Aviva Premiership, Exeter Chiefs open their Heineken Cup campaign at home against Cardiff Blues this Sunday.
And head coach Rob Baxter has warned his players they will face a side that are looking to hit their peak form during the European fortnight.
British & Irish Lions Sam Warburton, Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert and Gethin Jenkins all started in last weeknd's win against Edinburgh.
However, none of them played the opening match of the campaign and one of the key quartet has been introduced back every week since.
Baxter knows that means Cardiff will be a very different prospect now compared to the Blues team that started the season.
"One thing we've got to make sure we don't ignore is that everything the RaboDirect sides have done so far is to build for this weekend," said Baxter.
"If you look at the Cardiff team that's been selected over the last five weeks, the internationals and British Lions have slowly been dripped back in to give them the game time that's required to get them ready for this weekend.
"They weren't all up and firing for the first couple of rounds of the RaboDirect, they've been preparing for this weekend and we have to be ready for that. If we think we can roll along with our Premiership form we could be surprised.
"I have to make sure the guys understand that whatever's coming will be noticeably different to what we've seen on video so far."
Exeter and Cardiff find themselves in Pool Two of the Heineken Cup, alongside defending champions Toulon and Glasgow.
The Chiefs travel to Scotland next Sunday before home and away games against lavish-spenders Toulon in December.
Baxter is keen for his players to be in the mix to finish in the top two – and potential knockout European rugby in the spring – when the final two matches come around in January.
"The important thing in any competition is that you stay in the fight for as long as you can," he said.
"It's not always about one fixture, it's about making sure that by the time the last couple of games come around you've still got something to fight for.
"There's a multitude of ways that teams have fought their way through Heineken Cup pools, we've got to make sure we keep ourselves in the fight by getting off to a good start."
With the Chiefs winning so impressively at Gloucester last time out, it would be very easy for Baxter and his fellow coaches to send out the same starting XV against Cardiff.
However, centre Sam Hill suffered a heavy blow to a shoulder, which forced him off during the second half at Kingsholm and is being monitored.
But Baxter has more players returning to full fitness, with summer signing Romana Graham playing his first match on Monday night in the A League, when Grag Bateman continued his return to fitness.
The only senior player not in Exeter's 38-man European squad is injured prop Craig Mitchell, with academy tighthead Lloyd Fairbrother included to provide back-up.
This season's Heineken Cup could be the last, with English and French clubs proposing a new competition next term, with new qualifying criteria.
While that leaves the future of the European competition in doubt, Baxter wants to make the most of it while it lasts.
"I don't think it's for directors of rugby or head coaches to get too involved in the discussions," he said of the negotiations.
"It is what it is at the moment, the qualifying procedure is what it is and you have to be prepared for it.
"We have to enjoy the Heineken Cup for what it is because it is the top competition that's going on in Europe at the moment. It's something we've worked very hard to be part of."