HAVING already secured a place in the quarter-finals of the European Challenge Cup, Bristol Bears next turn their attention to gaining a place in the semi-finals of the Premiership Rugby Cup when they face Exeter Chief on Saturday (3pm), write John Harding.

With Exeter Chiefs going down 9-7 away to Munster, Bath losing 20-17 in Toulouse and Gloucester beat 24-22 away to Castres Olympique in the European Champions Cup last weekend, Bristol are left carrying the West Country flag in Europe.

But their focus is now on progressing in the Premiership Rugby Cup.

With the three pool winners and the highest-placed runner-up of the three pools progressing to the semi-finals, both teams will be looking to gain maximum points from Saturday’s game.

Bristol’s task in slightly tougher as they are third in Pool Three on points difference behind Gloucester and one point behind leaders Northampton Saints, while Exeter Chiefs are unbeaten and a point clear of Newcastle Falcons in Pool One.

“As you grow as a team, there is nothing as exciting or as challenging as knock-out rugby where your preparations have to be right on the money,” said Bristol Bears’ head coach ahead of the West Country derby.

“We’re really forward to welcoming Exeter to Ashton Gate. They are the benchmark – themselves and Saracens. They’ve got good clarity in their team and good squad depth whoever plays, it’s always tough, as we’ve found out already.

“We’ve enjoyed two tough games against Exeter already this season, both of which were really closely fought. We know what to expect and how good we are going to need to be to ensure we get the win.”

A controversial 83rd-minute penalty try saw Exeter Chiefs snatch a dramatic bonus-point 31-29 win in the Gallagher Premiership at Ashton Gate in November and then posting a 14-9 home success in the return fixture at the start of the year.

With the ‘Derby Day’ round being split over two weekends, ensuring all players receive a mid-season break, the final line-up for the semi-final – which will be played February 8 or 9 – will not be confirmed until on Sunday week.

This is the first season for the Premiership Rugby Cup, replacing the Anglo-Welsh Cup, Lam would like the organisers to consider the possibility of playing the ‘Derby Day’ round before the three pool games.

Lam has made 11 changes from the side that beat Russian side Yenisey-STM 107-19 last weekend with Charles Piutau, Luke Morahan, Ian Madigan and Harry Randall return to the backline.

In the pack, Samoan international Jordan Lay makes his first start since October, while Harry Thacker and John Afoa also come into the front row. Fly-half Callum Sheedy could make his 50th competitive appearance for the club if he comes off the bench.

Bristol Bears (home v Exeter Chiefs, 3pm): Charles Piutau; Luke Morahan, Piers O’Conor, Tusi Pisi (co-capt), Luke Daniels; Ian Madigan, Harry Randall; Jordan Lay, Harry Thacker, John Afoa (co-capt), Chris Vui, Aly Muldowney, Steve Luatua, Dan Thomas, Nick Haining.

Reps: Tom Lindsay, James Lay, Lewis Thiede, John Hawkins, Jake Heenan, Nic Stirzaker, Callum Sheedy, Ryan Edwards.

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