Three of the country’s hottest young prospects have shone a light on why they are quitting their current clubs to climb aboard the Exeter Chiefs bandwagon.
Apprentice England fullback Josh Hodge, back rower Aaron Hinkley and outside centre Corey Baldwin left Newcastle, Gloucester and Scarlets stunned and disappointed when it was announced they would be heading to the West Country.
However, former England U20s star Hinkley, 21, told The Rugby Paper: “They’re a champion club with such a great reputation within the game around their culture and team, but when I spoke to Rob Baxter, their director of rugby, what impressed me even more was the amount of research he’d done on me.
“He knew about all the games I’d played for Hartpury and had watched pretty much all my games over the past three years for Gloucester as well.
“He showed me how I could fit into their first team, where I could make the biggest impact in the back row and what I could do to build on the strengths I’ve got.
“It was a hard decision leaving Gloucester because I’d been their seven years, but I was frustrated at a lack of first team opportunities.”
Hinkley may have to play the long game in order to fight his way past No.8 Sam Simmonds and fulfil his England potential.
He says: “The club’s got such a good back row that to break into that side you’ve got to be world-class, but by the time you do break in you can compete with anyone.
“Rob told me I’ve got to get over calling myself a six, seven or No.8 because they like to have their big ball-carrier at six with a faster guy at No.8. They’ve already got Sam Simmonds there, but Rob sees me in that role as well.
After his shock call-up to England’s pre-Six Nations training squad, Lancaster-born Hodge, 20, is another who believes his career will flourish at Sandy Park.
While Scotland and Lions star Stuart Hogg provides a formidable barrier to the No.15 jersey, Hodge – another product of the England U20s programme – said: “That’s one of the big opportunities for me, to learn from such an experienced international.
“He’s got loads of skills, but it’s his unpredictability that marks him out, which is something I see myself as having as well.”
A rapid, rangy operator who can kick goals from 60 metres, Hodge was shocked by his England call-up earlier this year.
He recalls: “It came from nowhere, just after I’d made my Newcastle debut against Yorkshire Carnegie.
“To go from my Championship debut to an England camp in Portugal was pretty crazy, but I was grateful for the opportunity.
“I shared accommodation with George Ford, Anthony Watson and Willi Heinz, guys covering a good range of positions, so I was chatting to them all the time.
“George offered me good advice around not being afraid to get things wrong either, while he also taught me a lot about recovery and the art of looking after your body.”
Newcastle fans are raging at Hodge’s departure, but he explained: “I was out of contract and a couple of other clubs were interested.”
In Wales, Baldwin’s decision to leave the Scarlets in order to challenge England’s Henry Slade for Exeter’s No.13 jersey has caused similar uproar.
With nine PRO14 appearances this season, this is a man the West Walians had pinned a lot of hope on.
However, the lure of Devon proved too much for the Camberley-born, ex-Wales U20s star, with Baldwin telling TRP: “Scarlets was my home club from when my family moved to Wales when I was six and they wanted to keep me, but the opportunity to play in the English Premiership is massive, as well as the coaching and experience I’ll get there.
“It was one of those decisions where you think about the experiences you could have at one of Europe’s top clubs.”
Baldwin has learnt alongside Lions star Jonathan Davies.
He added: “I want to play outside centre. To get to there I may have to play a few games on the wing and they’ve got Henry, but he will be away with England at times.
“I’ve had a few chats with Jonathan Davies about how to get the most out of playing outside centre, especially defensively, so I’ve had access to that experience and it’s great to pick the brains of a guy like that.”