The home side are missing Semi Radradra, Harry Randall, Harry Thacker, Ben Earl, Nathan Hughes, Callum Sheedy and Henry Purdy. They still have plenty of quality in the 23, but they are undoubtedly more vulnerable than usual.
Exeter are much closer to their best line-up now Jack Nowell has returned to fitness. The visitors are missing in-form flanker Dave Ewers who has been mightily impressive in recent weeks.
These absentees for Bristol make Exeter favourites – but not by much.
Good evening, what a clash we have in store tonight
Warren Gatland will be present at Ashton Gate tonight as Exeter duo Sam Simmonds and Jack Nowell perform their final auditions for British and Irish Lions selection.
Gatland names his squad for South Africa on May 6 and with the Chiefs absent from the Champions Cup semi-finals next weekend, their two fringe contenders must use the top of the table Gallagher Premiership showdown at Bristol to make compelling arguments for selection.
Simmonds won the last of his seven England caps in 2018 but his stunning form as an all-action number eight has propelled him into the frame. Former Lions skipper and flanker Sam Warburton views him as a certainty to tour.
Nowell was in New Zealand four years ago and is admired by Gatland, but the wing is making only his first start of a season undermined by toe and hamstring injuries and at this late stage faces a tall order to force his way in as a back-three option.
Other internationals looking to impress Gatland will be centre Henry Slade and second-row Jonny Hill of England and Scotland lock Jonny Gray, all of whom start for Exeter.
Bristol may be runaway Premiership leaders but their director of rugby Pat Lam still views Exeter as the team to beat as he targets the Chiefs’ domestic crown.
Lam’s team are a mammoth 12 points clear at the summit and are bolstered by the confidence generated from a comprehensive 20-7 victory at Sandy Park in January.
Both clubs suffered disappointing early exits from Europe but are favourites to meet again in the Premiership final on June 26.
“Exeter are always a dangerous team. They are European champions, Premiership champions – they are the team,” said Lam, who is missing star centre Semi Radradra because of an ankle problem.
“Our focus is on trying to get to the top of the Premiership mountain and these guys are the guys who have been there for the last few years.
“(Exeter head coach) Rob Baxter has created a good template and they’ve got an identity and a game they want to play, so that gives everyone clarity. They’ve got good leadership and they’ve got continuity.
“We’ve always had big games against them. In all my time here, all but one of the games have been decided by one score.
“We got out to two scores the last time we played them, but we are expecting much of the same again – a really good battle that goes right down to the wire.”
Exeter bounced back from their conclusive Champions Cup quarter-final loss to Leinster by crushing Wasps 43-13, but Sale and Harlequins are still snapping at their heels with fifth-placed Northampton also in the picture.