Exeter Chiefs have bolstered their front-row options with the signing of young prop Alec Hepburn from Australian club Perth Spirit.
The 21-year-old forward, who has previously enjoyed spells with Wasps and London Welsh, has signed a deal that will keep him at Sandy Park until 2017.
Brought into the Chiefs this week by head coach Rob Baxter, Hepburn was a member of the victorious England Under-20s side that won the Junior World Championship in France two years ago, lining up alongside current Exeter young guns Luke Cowan-Dickie, Joel Conlon, Sam Hill, Henry Slade and Jack Nowell.
His arrival in Devon has been welcomed by Baxter, who believes the Perth-born youngster has the potential to reach the very top end of the game.
Baxter said: “Alec was in a bit of a strange rugby situation. He played in the England Under-20s World Cup-winning side with some of our lads, was involved with Wasps and on loan at London Welsh. He was there with Mitch Lees and part of the squad that went on to win promotion.
“He went to Australia for personal family reasons, but when we knew he was coming back to the UK we had a good look at him in those Championship games and had a chat with our lads who played with him for England Under-20s and it all came back very positively that he’s a young player we feel has got a bright future ahead of him.
“I think you’ve always got to be on the look out for those kind of players as well as the players you look for to add experience and decision making.
“He fits the bracket of being a young, exciting player we feel over the next two, three, four years will come through as potentially a top-flight player.”
Baxter added: “It’s an exciting opportunity for him and it’s great for us. He’s coming over with a slight knee issue that we’re aware of, that’s one of the reasons we wanted to get him over here now so that we can get on top of his medical and rehab stuff, rather than him coming over at the start of next season.
“He’s not going to feature straight away in our playing squad, he’s going to come over and start to settle in, get his rehab and knee situation sorted out and then we’ll look to bring him back into rugby when he’s fully fit.”
Hepburn himself is relishing the opportunity he has been given with the Chiefs and says he cannot wait to get stuck into life here in the Westcountry.
He said: “I’m very looking forward to it. I was very excited the whole plane trip over, knowing a few people helps , but I’m just looking forward to putting my roots down.
“I’ve only heard things from speaking to a few people about it, but I think it’s testament to how good the system is and how they are developing their players. The proof is in the pudding with the success they’re having.”
Having tasted English rugby before both with Wasps and Welsh, Hepburn is well versed in what is needed to be a success.
“I was at London Welsh for a year and it was really enjoyable taking out the Championship,” he said. “Playing in the Championship helped me massively – I don’t think I’d have it any other way.
“The Championship is a proven place, especially for young front-rowers, and it’s more than necessary to do your time there. You come up against good, experienced props and you learn a few lessons.”
Returning to Australia, Hepburn was quickly snapped up by Perth Spirit where he has continued to flourish in recent times.
“After my time at Welsh I jumped on a place to go back to Australia for a bit and that was equally enjoyable, I hadn’t been around my family for a long time so that was nice.
“I was playing with Perth Spirit in a new competition in Australia, that was really enjoyable and a different sort of game. They were good experiences and hopefully I can use them coming over here.”
Now at the Chiefs, Hepburn is hoping to kick on yet again under Messrs, Baxter, Hepher and Hunter.
He continued: “I’ve come in under a bit of an injury cloud so I just need to get my body in check and then just follow the protocols and get to know the systems before I can get on the pitch and get among everyone else in training and hopefully push for whatever comes next.
“My goals are not so much measured in playing but if you’re improving and if you’re constantly improving, everything else should hopefully take care of itself.”