Chris Whitehead wants to keep his Chiefs shirt
Exeter Chiefs hooker Chris Whitehead was delighted to make his first start for the club in ten months as they triumphed 29-12 at Gloucester last Sunday.
Whitehead had not worn the number two shirt in a competitive game since injuring his neck in the victory over Wasps at Sandy Park last December.
Surgery put the 27-year-old out of action until towards the end of March, and he was then unable to regain a place in the starting line-up because of the impressive form of young Jack Yeandle.
Yeandle hung on to the shirt for the opening weeks of this season, but Whitehead was given his opportunity against the Cherry and Whites after the disappointing home defeat to Leicester Tigers – and took it.
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"It was my first start since neck surgery and it has been a long time coming, but we have got such a competitive squad," he explained.
"With Jack doing so well, and other players like Greg Bateman coming back from injury, and Luke Cowan-Dickie not far away from a return, all the pressure is on me.
"You have got to keep hold of the shirt by playing well, and taking hold of those opportunities, and it is a long old season. It felt great to get the start, but there is a lot of hard work to be done."
Whitehead will be hoping to keep his place as the Chiefs change their focus from the Premiership for the next fortnight, tackling Cardiff Blues at home on Sunday and then Glasgow Warriors away seven days later.
The Blues have British and Irish Lions stars Sam Warburton, Leigh Halfpenny and Alex Cuthbert in their ranks, and it is a challenge Whitehead is relishing.
"The bigger names they are, the more players like myself get excited about those opportunities. It is about testing yourself in those environments and seeing how well you can come through the other side," said the former Wasps, Leicester and London Welsh hooker.
"You want those opportunities as a young player, like myself. You want to play against the best in order to really test yourself, and fingers crossed, we keep bouncing through with a couple of victories in the Heineken Cup."
Exeter go into the match off the back of three wins in their opening five Premiership games, which has left them in sixth place in the table after a difficult run of fixtures.
"The Premiership is our biggest focus, while the Heineken Cup is a massive bonus for us, and it is exciting times for us, after winning three of our first five games," said Whitehead.
"The defeats were to Northampton and Leicester, and while as players and as a club, we are ambitious and we want to be winning those games, we have come through some tough fixtures and we are in good shape at the minute.
"We were looking at the table on the bus to Gloucester, and we could have been second from bottom if we had lost that game.
"It just goes to show you how physical and demanding the Premiership is, but that is the environment we want to be in, we love it and we want to thrive off that and get excited about the kind of opportunities it provides."
The victory over Gloucester was even more satisfying after the poor first-half display against Leicester seven days before, in a match where the Chiefs experienced problems with their set-piece.
"The first half against Leicester was clearly disappointing, and we needed to answer a few questions at Gloucester, and I think we did that," explained Whitehead.
"The first-half performance at Kingsholm was great. Then all of the pressure was on them, and it was about maintaining that pressure, keeping playing, and backing ourselves and our ability, and we came away with a good win."