Exeter Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter hopes Don Armand will see out the rest of his career at Sandy Park.
The influential back-row forward, together with lock Jonny Hill, have both been handed new two-year contracts by the Premiership club that will extend their stay in Devon until at least the summer of 2019.
Baxter has spoken in recent weeks about his desire to tie down the long-term futures of a number of players within his first-team squad – and this latest news will be warmly welcomed not only by those in power at Sandy Park, but also by the wider Chiefs faithful.
“Don has been with us a while now, and is an exceptional back-row or back-five forward,” said Baxter of the former Stormers forward who joined the Chiefs in 2013.
“He has been in exceptional form for us over the last two or three seasons in the Premiership, and he is a key leader and key member of our squad, so we are really pleased he is going to extend his stay with us over a lengthy time.
“He is one of those guys you would probably like to think might stay around and have his whole of the rest of his career with us really, he has been that good for us since we signed him.”
Baxter added: “Don came to us and didn’t have a position pinned down straight away, but he worked extremely hard and learnt a lot about what the club was like. He was in a position of real competition across the back five of the scrum and took his opportunities when they came.
“To me, he is a player who is thriving in all the challenges we lay out – the bigger the games we play in, the more he seems to enjoy them. I still see a lot of development in him, and he has just got to take that next little step really to fulfil his potential as an international player, because he is not far off playing at that level now.
“There are potentially one or two things he can add to his game that will just make it impossible not to pick him. He plays a lot of rugby for us week in and week out, and there is a reason for that – because he is a good player.”
Teaming up alongside Armand – who last summer was one of a number of Exeter players to tour South Africa with the England Saxons – will be Hill, who himself has progressed impressively since arriving from top flight rivals Gloucester two years ago.
Like Armand, Baxter is predicting the 22-year-old forward to go on to bigger and better things, insisting the player has the potential to become a full England international.
“Jonny is a young man who has now broken through into the frontline first-team squad,” said Baxter. “You can see him becoming a very important member of the back five of the scrum for us.
“He looks like a player with ever-growing potential and whilst it is going to be important for us to help him fulfil that potential, as long as he is prepared to work very hard, I can see him becoming a full international rugby player.”
Certainly Hill has demonstrated he is willing to work hard for his chance, this despite picking up some notable injuries during his spell with the Chiefs.
Baxter added: “All we can really do with a lot of these players is put the opportunity in front of them, and that is what we like to think we do as a coaching group, and as a conditioning group and as a medical group – to create an environment where the guys can come and they can either soak it up, take it all in and work very hard within that environment, or they can take the opportunity not to maximise it.
“What you are seeing from Jonny is that he has come in and had to work extremely hard to get over a pretty serious ankle injury, which had also created some instability issues around his knee.
“That was a big part of his first six to 12 months at the club, and now he is up and running and able to get on the training field and playing field more regularly, we are really starting to see him thrive.
“He has got the physical attributes to become a huge man and a big player in the back five of our scrum. He has still got a lot of hard work to do, and that is the thing that he is going to have to get used to doing every single day, because he is going to have to manage himself to get the best out of himself.
“But as long as we can help him pursue that desire to be the best he can be, he could be a very, very good player.”
Armand and Hill make it 11 current Chiefs that Baxter has signed up to new contracts in the past month or so, and together with new signings Matt Kvesic, Toby Salmon and Tom O’Flaherty, he is very happy with how his squad is shaping up for next season.
“We are really pleased. We are very close to completing the signing of a high-quality player, and we will probably be able to announce that in the next couple of weeks, and we are still actively in the market for potentially one more high-quality player,” said Baxter.
“We are also still looking at strengthening a little bit of our Academy group, and we are already starting to talk about some contract extensions beyond next year for (senior) guys we have still got here for at least another season. We are actively still recruiting and things look very interesting for us.”