Exeter should not be underestimated despite big names of Saracens

Scanning the Exeter team list on grand final day is to be reminded of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid being pursued on horseback by a mysterious posse who never take a wrong turn. “They’re beginning to get on my nerves,” mutters Butch. “Who are those guys?” Jonny Hill, Alec Hepburn and Joe Simmonds are less famous than their counterparts Maro Itoje, Mako Vunipola and Owen Farrell but the Chiefs have long since stopped worrying about lofty reputations.

Having topped the regular-season table and hoisted last year’s Premiership trophy, there is no inferiority complex out west nowadays. Good luck telling the 6ft 7in tall Hill, for instance, that he should be looking up to Itoje or simply be grateful to share the same field. Not only did the pair feature in the same England U20 squad but they are about to be reunited as team-mates on tour in South Africa next month.

“I don’t want to be the guy who goes down on his knees and says: ‘Look, that’s so-and-so,’” says Hill bluntly. “They’ve got two arms and two legs. I just want to go out there and get stuck in.”

Hepburn, part of England’s Six Nations squad and hoping to join Vunipola at next year’s Rugby World Cup, feels the same. As for the 21-year-old Simmonds, he makes competing against Farrell sound as routine as replacing the club’s champion marksman, Gareth Steenson, in the starting XV: “I haven’t even thought about who I’m up against. He’s a class player but we’re in the final for a reason.”

No wonder this year’s Twickenham finale has the feel of a potential classic. The Chiefs boast four starting players from the side that beat Wasps in extra time last May but their coach, Rob Baxter, reckons that freshness will increase his side’s desire to finish the job.

His forwards coach, Rob Hunter, advises those underestimating Exeter’s lesser lights to reconsider. “We’re not talking about guys knocking about at the bottom of the league,” he says. “These are first‑choice players in a side that’s top of the league.

“Those Saracens boys are amazing players but our guys are not there by accident. I have a bit of a thing about people saying: ‘Can they do it at the next level?’ They play rugby every week, just let them get on with it.’”

So who are these guys? One of the most beguiling aspects of Exeter’s success has been Baxter’s ability to unite the most disparate of cast members: from local fishermen’s sons to Zimbabwean refugees to cake-loving No 8s, there is a rare strength of common purpose. The shaggy-haired Hepburn’s journey has been more unlikely than most. He played Australian Rules football, basketball and netball in his youth and grew up closer to Antarctica than Europe. In Hopetoun, a remote coastal settlement 600km south-east of Perth, he and his teenage mates effectively came and went as they pleased. “We’d have unlimited freedom,” he says. “My mum would barely see us all week, she’d just see the fridge being emptied.”

The son of a £10 Pom who migrated to Australia in the fifties, the laid-back Hepburn was still unsure whether he wanted to pursue rugby when Hunter, then coaching England U20s, first met him as an 18-year-old in a coffee shop in Henley: “He was umming and ahhing about whether to be a powerlifter or play Aussie Rules. He was doing all sorts.”

Hepburn’s life might also have unfolded differently had injury not intervened just when he was thinking about basing himself permanently in Australia. Instead, he is now the Premiership’s most mobile loosehead, does some coaching at Crediton RFC and spends his spare time debating with his house-mate and fellow England prop, Harry Williams, most recently on the importance of free speech. “We cover everything under the sun. Rugby’s only a small part of the eclectic conversations we have.” Do they ever disagree? “It wouldn’t be fun if we didn’t. You’ve got to understand that Harry’s from the city. I don’t think he’s even been in the ocean.”

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Hill is another of Exeter’s so-called orphans, as those hailing from outside Devon or Cornwall call themselves. The son of a stock trader from Ludlow he supplies the team with horse-racing tips and would be shearing sheep alongside his brother – “He does 15,000 a year” – had he not been spotted during an open trial at Hartpury College. His mother’s twin is Paul Loughlin, who played 297 games for St Helens and represented Great Britain; there are no lineouts in rugby league but Hill’s stats in that sphere this season have surpassed everyone else’s in the Premiership. Uncle Paul played in five Challenge Cup finals (all lost); his nephew is an endearing character who, among other things, dislikes being in dressing-rooms before games: “I like to go and sit in the stands, listen to some music and text one or two people. Changing-rooms are not a nice environment; everyone’s full of caffeine and they’re farting everywhere. I don’t really want that in my life.”

No one at Chiefs minds in the slightest. Hunter says: “The thing I like most about Jonny is that he lollops around in the week, then you stick a first-team jersey on him and he suddenly looks like a giant. There’s a very sharp rugby brain in there too. If he plays for England next month he’ll be fine.”

Then there is Simmonds, until recently the under-rated younger brother of the already capped Sam. So good has been his recent form that the former Torquay schoolboy footballer sounds almost blase. “I used to get nervous but now I don’t think about anything other than the ball going through the posts,” he says. “It just shows the confidence I’ve got at the moment. If I wasn’t kicking goals I’d find rugby quite boring. I like being the centre of attention, I like the pressure.”

He can also think clearly in emergencies. As a kid in Teignmouth, having barricaded himself in the family toilet during a fight with his brother, he recalls sliding a £5 note under the door to distract his enraged sibling.

Farrell will be less easily fooled but Saracens should still be wary. If the unheralded Chiefs can start well, their bigger-name opponents will find them difficult to shake off.

Quick guide

Exeter v Saracens – the teams

Exeter: L Turner; J Nowell, H Slade, S Hill, O Woodburn; J Simmonds, N White; A Hepburn, L Cowan-Dickie, T Francis, M Lees, J Hill, D Ewers, D Armand (capt), S Simmonds.

Replacements: J Yeandle, B Moon, G Holmes, S Skinner, T Waldrom, S Townsend, G Steenson, I Whitten.

Saracens: A Goode; S Maitland, A Lozowski, B Barritt (capt), C Wyles; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth; M Vunipola, J George, V Koch, M Itoje, G Kruis, N Isiekwe, J Wray, B Vunipola.

Replacements: S Brits, R Barrington, J Figallo, W Skelton, M Rhodes, B Spencer, M Bosch, N Earle.


Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images Europe
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