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Exeter Chiefs star Ian Whitten is buoyed by Toulon opportunity

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 05, 2013

By Mike Baker

Exeter Chiefs Ian Whitten  drives for the line against Saracens. Picture: Mat Mingo/Pinnacle

Exeter Chiefs Ian Whitten drives for the line against Saracens. Picture: Mat Mingo/Pinnacle

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In these heady, halcyon days of top-flight rugby, World Cup announcements and recent plans for stadium expansion at Sandy Park, it takes something special to elevate the studied air of pre-match anticipation above the norm.

And yet there was perhaps a sense of something different among the Exeter Chiefs players as they put the finishing touches to their preparation for another weekend of honest toil.

If there is a degree of elevated tension, laced with a hint of wonder at what awaits them on Saturday, that is entirely understandable. Sure, they have faced European champions before – in three-times winners Leinster in their debut Heineken Cup appearance last season – but few have ever been like Toulon, whose jaw-dropping line-up makes a reality of fantasy rugby.

Treating this just as any other game will not be easy – chiefly because in so many ways it is not – and yet that is precisely what centre Ian Whitten and his team-mates intend to do.

"It's certainly up there in terms of who we'll be playing against," he said. "They are all household names, and big internationals. It'll be very exciting from that point of view.

"Clermont last year were an amazing team both times, so we can see where Toulon match up to them. Certainly, we're expecting a massive test at the weekend and we'll have to be ready to make that jump in intensity.

"We play against teams week in, week out and they maybe have one or two big players, but these boys seem to have 15 massive internationals, so from that point of view it will be a bit different.

"But it's just something you have to deal with, you don't play the players you play the team. And it's a big game for them too."

Like any young pup of an underdog facing up to a more seasoned foe, Chiefs have at least got experience in their corner. Theirs may not be the feted legacy of Toulon, but at least the memories of last season are fresh.

And but for a slice more fortune against Leinster, both at home and away, those recollections might have been more romantic.

Even so, Whitten, who signed a two-year extension to his Chiefs contract this week, is confident they can take on anyone.

He said: "Last year against Leinster we played pretty well and were maybe unlucky not to get a draw or victory against them.

"And against Clermont we had a really good first half at home, so it's about bringing that experience from last year through on Saturday for 80 minutes. Then you never know, we may come away with a victory.

"Coming from Ireland, we always treated the Heineken Cup as our massive games of the year. Over here it's a bit different because the league's so competitive, but when you're playing the European champions you're going to be excited.

"There aren't many times in your career that you'll get to do that."

Successive Premiership defeats – at home to Saracens and away to Bath last weekend – have also stung the Devon side, as 26-year-old Ulsterman Whitten explained.

"If the last two weeks have taught us anything, it's that you have to finish off your chances against the best teams. You've got to be clinical when you get those opportunities, because you don't get very many."

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