European rugby's premier competition returns this weekend with a host of enthralling match-ups, including Heineken Cup newcomer Exeter Chiefs traveling to Ireland to take on the reigning champions Leinster.
Here skysports.com talks to Chiefs captain Tom Hayes ahead of his side's challenging debut.
skysports.com: It can't get much tougher than playing the reigning champions away from home in the opening fixture?
Hayes: "It's an even bigger challenge than what we're used to. Leinster have rightfully earned the title of being the best Heineken Cup side of all time, winning three titles in four years. To travel there first up as an introduction to the competition is a huge challenge for us. It's a real baptism of fire, but it's a challenge that we're massively excited about. We'll go and enjoy it, be as positive as we can, and see where it takes us."
skysports.com: Can you keep the same template in Europe that you use in the Premiership?
Hayes: "I don't think we should look to change too much. We've never really looked to change what we do, no matter what the challenge has been. It's just a case of trying to improve and raise the intensity. We just have to be as positive as we can and try and attack the game. One thing we've rarely tried to do is just go into games and contain opponents, because if you do that at this level you come unstuck. We always try to give teams something to think about, to make them worry about us as much as we do about them."
skysports.com: Will you draw on last year's Amlin Challenge Cup experience?
Hayes: "We have to. That's all part of the maturing process that we're going through as a squad. Even though there are a few fellas, including myself, on the wrong side of 30, we're still learning an awful lot about playing at this level of rugby. The game against Stade Francais - and the other games before that - has taught us an awful lot about how to handle pressure and crank up the level of rugby that we're playing. We've learnt a lot from that and we'll have to do the same this year.
"You have to manage pressure. Looking back at our game last weekend, we didn't handle things very well. We played Leicester and let things get to us during the game, and it snowballed against us. Leicester kept building momentum against us and that's what we're going to have to deal with in the Heineken Cup. It's something that occurs at the top level. Whatever highlights the opposition get, you've got to try and trump those with highlights of your own."
skysports.com: Have you set any targets from your Heineken Cup campaign this season?
Hayes: "When you are in a pool like ours, against teams with a lot of Heineken Cup experience, it's hard to set yourself any targets. That's the wrong way of approaching it. You just have to be very positive. It's well over 10 years since the club set out its focus of getting into the Premiership. There was no point in us being afraid of it and not enjoying it. Having waited so long to get to this level, the club are certainly going to enjoy it.
"It's not just a learning curve, a free shot for us. We want to get used to playing at this level and handling the pressure, and trying to impose ourselves on games. We're not here to make up the numbers. We're going to do our utmost to give a good account of ourselves."
skysports.com: Are you wary of the step up in quality and intensity of the Heineken Cup?
Hayes: "That is one of the challenges for us. What's new for us this year is trying to live up to that. A lot of people say that the Heineken Cup is the closest thing you can get to international rugby, so there's going to be a step up in intensity."
skysports.com: What will the atmosphere be like at Sandy Park?
Hayes: "It's been an absolutely brilliant place to play over the past few years. The atmosphere there for most of the game is fantastic and our away support has grown as well. Even though we got thumped by Leicester last weekend, they were still singing and chanting. The Heineken Cup was only a dream a couple of years ago for people who would come to Sandy Park for games. Now it's going to be a reality and they'll relish the prospect of that as much as the players."
skysports.com: What are your memories of the Heineken Cup?
Hayes: "My memories of the competition go right back to the start of it. I was hanging over the wall in Thomond Park for Munster's very first game against Swansea in November 1995. Pat Murray scored the winning try under the crossbar. I was there right from the start. It was a huge thing, and similar to the way it is such an exciting prospect for Exeter now, it was the same for the Irish provinces back then.
"All they ever had was the inter-provincials, where the four of them played against each other. Suddenly all the European sides were involved and you were travelling all over Europe to play games. It built massive momentum. Munster's story is well documented in the Heineken Cup, and I was living in Ireland for the first 10 years of it. It made a big impression on me so I'll certainly be relishing the chance. I'll try to give as good an account of myself as possible."