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Saints sign two ex-England age-grade players, including 128kg prop

By Kim Ekin
(Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

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Northampton have confirmed the signing of English duo Aaron Hinkley and Alfie Petch from Exeter Chiefs. A club statement read: “The pair, both former England U20s and U18s internationals, have put pen to paper on contracts to join the men in Black, Green and Gold ahead of the 2022/23 season.

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“Hinkley, 23, has caught the eye during a trial period in Northampton, pulling on the jersey twice in the Gallagher Premiership so far against Harlequins and Saracens. The highly-rated flanker began his career in Gloucester’s academy set-up in 2017 before moving to Exeter Chiefs three years later. 

“Hinkley found first-team opportunities limited at both clubs but produced several scintillating performances at age-group level for England, scoring a memorable try at cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens for the U20s against Scotland.

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“Petch, a 22-year-old tighthead prop, initially joined Exeter’s academy at the age of 14 before progressing into the club’s U18s line-up. The 128kg forward made his first-team debut during the 2018/19 season while featuring for England U20s in both the Six Nations and World Championships in Argentina in the same campaign. Petch has gained senior experience with Cornish Pirates, playing 23 times in the Championship this season.”

Having seen Hinkley thrive in recent weeks after being unexpectedly thrust into Premiership action, incoming director of rugby Phil Dowson is now confident Hinkley has the tenacity to perform at the very highest level for Saints. “Aaron’s been really impressive ever since he arrived here on a trial,” he said. 

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“He has a high-energy, aggressive player who is really good over the ball as we have seen in the matches he has played so far. One of his big points of difference is his speed, and the edge he brings when he plays. We wanted to get him inside our environment on trial first to see what he is about and how he could fit into our group, and he has worked hard throughout his time with us.

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“He was one of the standout performers in (head of academy) Mark Hopley’s England U20s squad back in 2019. Mark has been so complimentary about the amount of effort Aaron puts into every session he is involved in.

“It speaks volumes about his character that after such a long time away from playing any competitive rugby, he was able to come into the side in a crucial Premiership match and play at an outstanding level, so we think the ceiling is high for him and we’re excited to sign him up on a long-term deal.”

Hinkley said: “I’m buzzing to sign on at Saints long-term having been at the club for a few months now. It’s been a fantastic environment to come into, and I’m really enjoying playing at Franklin’s Gardens under this coaching group.”

On Petch, the other Northampton signing from Exeter, Dowson added: “The Championship is a fantastic breeding ground for young props and Alfie impressed us with his natural strength, power and scrummaging ability. He has got skill around the park too, so he is not a one-trick pony, but first and foremost he loves scrummaging and wants to better himself to see how far he can go, which is music to (scrum coach) Matt Ferguson’s ears.

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“Alfie has spent all his life in the West Country, so he is excited to move up to Northampton for a fresh start. He loved playing week-in, week-out for Cornish Pirates and that desire to get on the pitch and build his experience was just what we were looking for.”

“I’m really excited about a new challenge in Northampton and getting stuck in with all the boys there,” added Petch. “It’s a young squad of talented players up at Saints, with an impressive coaching group too.

“I’m also very grateful to Alan Paver at Cornish Pirates for helping me so much this season. I really believe Northampton will be consistent Premiership contenders in the years ahead, so I can’t wait to get started.”

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