Rob Baxter has continued his busy summer of squad retention by adding three more Exeter Chiefs names to the list of players extending their stays at Sandy Park.
Fresh from helping the England Saxons to success on their summer tour of South Africa, Don Armand, Alec Hepburn and Mitch Lees have all put pen to paper on new deals with the ambitious Aviva Premiership Rugby club.
The trio are following the lead of team-mates Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jack Nowell and Henry Slade, all of whom have returned from England’s victorious summer tour to Australia and agreed new three-year deals with the Chiefs earlier this week.
Head coach Baxter has talked often in the past of his desire to reward those players who have produced high quality performances and who can take the club onto new levels in the future.
In the case of Armand, Hepburn and Lees, the talented trio all played pivotal roles last season as the Chiefs not only advanced to the quarter-finals of the European Champions Cup for the first time, but pushed Saracens all the way in the Aviva Premiership Rugby final at Twickenham in May.
Having the six players all commit their immediate futures to the club is a huge boost for Baxter, who has said others are set to follow suit in the coming days and week.
For now, though, the Exeter leader is delighted to have agreed terms with Armand, Hepburn and Lees.
“These are players we have gone out and looked at and thought very highly of, and have brought them through either from Championship level, or with Don, the level below Super 15 because he hadn’t quite broken into that level over there,” said Baxter.
“They have added a lot in their short time they have been with us and we think they are players who are going to play a big, big part in the future of the club going forward.
“Mitch and Don had real stand-out seasons last year and they are starting to show that they could be two of the best back-five forwards in the Premiership, and that was shown by them going on the Saxons tour, while Alec has just been getting better and better in his time with us.
“We made a decision to bring him in early to the club and nurse him through some injury rehab, and I think that was a really good decision, and that allowed him to put some foundation work in, which allowed him to have a good season last year, and I thought he was absolutely fantastic on the Saxons tour, probably one of the stand-out forwards.”
All three of them are hidden gems that Baxter has found through his own extensive recruitment policy, which he explained this week.
“Mitch came over from Australia into a London Welsh side that went very well, and at the time we were looking for a back five forward," he added.
"We had a really good look at the Championship and he was standing out over a number of games, so we moved on that very quickly and secured his services. Since then we have been really pleased with how he has done in the Premiership.
“Alec was slightly different. We had seen him play for London Welsh and go very well, but he then went off the radar for most people by going home to Australia for personal reasons. Rugby-wise, things kind of petered out for him a little bit and he picked up a knee injury.
“Despite playing for England Under-20s with our lads, his rugby career was probably at a crossroads, and once we knew he was available, it was a pretty easy decision to get him over here as quickly as possible and get him involved in our programme, and both Alec and the club are now seeing the benefits of that.”
The goal of all three of the players is now to target a place in the senior England squad and Baxter sees no reason why they can’t make the step up to full international status over the coming season.
He continued: “That is fantastic for us because the challenge for those lads now is to play so well at the start of the season that they can’t be left out of the next England EPS squad when it is announced, and we have got a lot of players now in that position. They are going to want to try and break into that full England squad.”