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Exeter still Ali Hepher’s focus despite link to England

Ali HepherAli Hepher, the highly-rated strategist behind Premiership Rugby’s deadliest attack, refused to rule himself out of coaching England but insists his mind is focused on trophy success at Exeter.

Touted alongside fellow backs specialists Alex King, of Northampton, and Harlequins’ Mark Mapletoft, Hepher will be one of the names under close consideration when new England boss Eddie Jones gets round to finalising his coaching team this summer.

With good reason, too, for Exeter are this season’s leading domestic try-scorers with 30 touchdowns in nine games, to which they have added 18 more in the Champions Cup.

Asked if he has any interest in coaching England, Hepher, 41, told The Rugby Paper: “It’s obviously pleasing to be mentioned but our attack is not a one-man thing at Exeter, a lot of it comes from other coaches and we have 50 players having a look as well.

“We work hard as a unit and it’s great the way we’ve been attacking games. Our driving maul has been strong, we’ve added to our attacking pace, guys like James Short and Olly Woodburn have gone well on the wings and we’ve worked hard through midfield.

“Originally when I got into coaching, did I think about the international scene? Not at all, I was only interested in progressing through the club scene.

“As you get older, does the appeal of the international rugby get greater? Perhaps, but I’m fully focused on Exeter.

“You have ambitions in the game but there’s a lot for us to do club-wise as well and there are a good couple of seasons ahead of us now for us to attack and try to win some trophies. Am I interested in England? I’m just happy to be thought about, that’s all.”

Exeter’s stunning progress into the Champions Cup quarter-finals at the expense of Clermont Auvergne, Bordeaux and Ospreys has raised the prospect of the Sandy Park outfit gunning for the unlikeliest of league and European doubles.

Hepher, a Heineken Cup winning fly-half with Northampton against Munster in 2000, reckons the Chiefs have nothing to lose when they take on Wasps in April.

He said: “It’s a weird one to come to terms with because we didn’t expect it to happen. We were prioritising the Premiership but it’s a great twist; it’s only three games and you’ve picked up the Champions Cup and we know we’re a good side on our day.

“There are eight very strong sides in there but we’ve beaten Clermont this season and have beaten all the English sides in the past, so we know we can compete. A lot will depend on where we are with fitness and guys coming back, but it’s an exciting prospect.”

Before that, Exeter face a run of ten straight league games which will define their chances of achieving a top-four spot and a first-ever crack at the play-offs.

Despite injuries to key men like Henry Slade, Dave Ewers, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Mitch Lees and Damian Welch, Hepher feels Chiefs can cope, saying: “A lot of planning went into getting the right squad this year because we knew rest time would be limited.

“Guys who’ve come in have done really well and we’ve generated a lot of competition for places. It’s a different test for us now in terms of international players and managing that scenario, but if we can stay competitive we’ll be pretty well placed for the run-in.”

That begins at Worcester today and Hepher added: “We’ve had half an eye on this over the last couple of weeks and it’s a massive game for us. If we can start this block of games well we’ll be in very good shape, but we know Worcester are a good side.”

NEALE HARVEY

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