IT is fair to say that attitudes have changed to the Heineken Cup since it started in 1995.
Back then, no English sides took part and it wasn’t seen as much more than a bit of a novelty.
Roll forward 18 years and the amount of interest generated for a regular pool game with qualification still too far away to make the match decisive shows how far it has come.
Tickets for Exeter Chiefs’ home date with Toulon sold out in record time. Less than 36 hours after they went on sale, the ‘sold out’ signs were put up at Sandy Park.
Luck plays a part in most sports, and the Chiefs have been luckier than most in terms of who they have been drawn with in their first two seasons in the Heineken Cup.
Having defending champions Leinster and Clermont Auvergne, who were beaten by the Irish province in the semi-finals the year before, made for a special first experience of the competition for Rob Baxter’s men.
So to get the reigning European kings at Sandy Park for the second time in a calendar year is a remarkable stroke of good fortune.
Obviously it is not just the past success of Bernard Laporte’s side that caused thousands of fans to snap up tickets as soon as they were available for purchase.
One look at the squad list assembled by owner Mourad Boudjellal’s fortune shows you why it is such a big draw for rugby fans in general, not just Chiefs followers.
They have household names and legends of the game from such notable rugby strongholds as France, England, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, as well as the not-insignificant forces of Italy and Argentina.
But Leinster’s squad wasn’t too shabby either – with Ireland internationals and British & Irish Lions galore – and the Chiefs gave them two very close, hard-fought battles last term, almost drawing on their competition debut in Dublin.
The same sort of effort will be required if Rob Baxter’s men are to take something from Saturday lunchtime’s game. But there is no reason to suggest they cannot do just that and claim a prized scalp.
Defensively they have been on top of their game in the last couple of weeks as Saracens and Bath – first and third in the Aviva Premiership – managed just one try against Exeter between them.
The Chiefs have also shown they can still turn it on in attack, controlling possession for long periods in both matches.
And, considering how strong Bath have been in the set-piece this season, Exeter fared very well in the scrums and line-outs.
Toulon themselves were a shadow of the side that won the Heineken Cup last season in Saturday’s defeat at Stade Français, and if Laporte named Frédéric Michalak at fly-half instead of Jonny Wilkinson it would certainly improve the Chiefs’ chances of success no end this weekend!
But with a slating from the club’s owners still ringing in their ears, you can be sure the galacticos who make the trip to Devon will be keen to put in a much better showing.
That makes it a mouthwatering prospect for everyone fortunate enough to have a ticket for the contest.
It is not the biggest game in Exeter’s history – none of this would be possible without the Championship final against Bristol, and until they win a trophy in the top flight that will remain the most momentous match in the club’s past.
However, a victory would send a message throughout the continent that the Chiefs are now a force to be reckoned with.
One final thought: four years ago today (Thursday), Exeter travelled to Doncaster for a Championship match and won a dire game 14-9.
It’s been some journey since then.