Exeter should not be underestimated despite big names of saracens sport the guardian gas station car wash


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.”

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.”