Exeter Chiefs lock James Hanks expects their Heineken Cup trip to Clermont Auvergne this weekend to be his side’s toughest game of the season.
Chiefs revert to cup rugby for the next four weekends with two rounds of the Heineken Cup followed by back-to-back fixtures in the LV= Cup.
Chiefs host Leinster at Sandy Park, a week on Saturday before travelling to Bath and hosting Northampton Saints.
Despite the challenges ahead and the Chiefs’ disappointing Aviva Premiership loss to Saints last weekend, they will approach the coming weeks with a positive mindset.
“These are the challenges you want in rugby,” said Hanks, who played 150th league game for Chiefs on Saturday.
“Clermont away will be one of the toughest games of the season for us but there is nothing to fear. We will go there and try to impose ourselves and play our game.
“If we perform well enough the result will come.”
The 30-19 loss to Saints last weekend was Chiefs’ first home defeat of the season in the Premiership. It follows on from a draw at home to Bath the previous week and a loss at Gloucester.
However, Hanks is optimistic his side can come back stronger when their Premiership campaign resumes against Sale Sharks on February 8.
He said: “We could have come out with three wins but that is how the Premiership is this year. Teams are very tight and close and everyone is beating everyone. If you put a couple of wins together, suddenly you can be in the top four or five.
“We feel we have been competitive in every game and we will continue trying add things to our game and make sure we put a bit of a run together that gets us back firing on all cylinders.
“We will focus on the little things that hurt us against Saints and improve on things again. It was pretty frustrating. I thought we played quite well at times but we didn’t quite take the opportunities that we had.
“We are trying to play positively and it didn’t quite come for us. There is still no reason why we can’t do as well as we did last season. We are still a better side than we were and we will keep improving week on week.”
Hanks has certainly achieved that aim of continual improvement during his time with Chiefs. He made his debut for the club against Cornish Pirates in September 2005, when ambitions of Premiership rugby were still nearly five years from fruition.
Now they are preparing to play Clermont and Leinster in the Heineken Cup over the next weekends, with high hopes of victory.
Chiefs lost 9-6 to Leinster on October 13 before suffering a 46-12 loss the following week in the first-ever Heineken Cup game at Sandy Park.
Hanks said: “It is great to play 150 league games and I feel very lucky to have been here for that long.
“We always wanted to be a Premiership club, and even when we were in the Championship, we held ourselves to Premiership standards. It is where we want to be and where we want to play. We want to push on and keep improving every season.
“Clermont is one of the toughest places to go in Europe. It will be a fantastic experience for the guys that are involved and you just have to enjoy those experiences, they don’t come around that often.
“We were in the game at half-time against Clermont at our place a couple of months ago. Two or three half chances were fully exploited and they did that really quickly in a ten-minute spell. That is rugby at the highest level and we are learning about that all the time.”