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The Exeter verdict on Jonny Hill losing out this week with England

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Dan Mullan/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

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Exeter have admitted it wasn’t a great surprise that Jonny Hill won’t be fit in time for England to face Scotland this weekend, head coach Ali Hepher explaining that they believed his availability was touch and go when he left the Chiefs to hook up with Eddie Jones’ squad in Brighton on January 24. 

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The 27-year-old was an England starter in all three of his country’s matches across the Autumn Nations Series but he hasn’t played since suffering a stress fracture to his lower leg/high ankle during Exeter’s narrow January 8 Gallagher Premiership loss at Harlequins.

England admitted at their Tuesday media briefing that Hill had yet to feature in full contact training and hopes that he could still be involved in this weekend’s Guinness Six Nations opener were extinguished later that evening when Jones announced a reduced 29-strong squad that excluded the 14-cap Test player.  

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“As he left us he was really touch and go and they [England] would have done really well to get him out there and play,” explained Hepher at the Chiefs media briefing on Wednesday. “They have obviously done what they could do with him and monitored him and tried to give it as much treatment as possible but he hasn’t quite made it. 

“I’m not sure exactly whether he will be fit for the following week (versus Italy on February 13). I’m not even sure whether he comes back to us or stays in camp, but if he comes back to us he will get the best possible treatment and he will be back as soon as possible.”

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Despite the exclusion of Hill, Exeter are in the running to potentially still have a seven-strong involvement in the Scotland-England match at Murrayfield, the Scottish trio of Stuart Hogg, Sam Skinner and Jonny Gray possibly lining out against an English quartet of Luke Cowan-Dickie, Sam Simmonds, Henry Slade and Jack Nowell.

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It will be Thursday when those two Test teams are named and with Courtney Lawes also unavailable for England, there is the added possibility that Cowan-Dickie could be named as skipper to take on a Scotland team set to be captained by Hogg.

Cowan-Dickie is one of three vice-captains in the running for promotion with England and while Sale’s Tom Curry is tipped to eventually get the nod ahead of the Exeter hooker and Leicester’s Ellis Genge, Hepher believes the Test captaincy would be something the Chiefs forward would relish. 

Look, you don’t get to captain your country by chance. If he did get it, and I don’t know, it would be huge for him. The thing with Luke is he won’t get carried away with it, he won’t take it for granted or anything. You’ll get the same energy and enthusiasm and spirit on the field, so I don’t think it will affect him either way. 

“He has said already he will just crack on whether he is the skipper or not, but he has done really well. Over the last couple of years, he has really matured into that role. He skippers the side here (at Exeter) very well. 

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“He demands a high standard of training and performance, so he is a very good leader in the sense that he will put himself out for every training session and he will fight and be competitive within every training session. It would be a huge honour for him but something he would thoroughly deserve if he gets it.

“They have gone fantastically well here,” added Hepher about the four players still in the mix for England selection. “I’m glad they are pressing their international claims and certainly there is a few of them starting to establish themselves as mainstays of that England team which is great to see. 

“Plus obviously, Sam is starting to get more recognition and get more involvements. Hopefully, that bodes well for the future. And Jack certainly fully deserves his call up because his performance is fantastic for us and he is sort of right back up to his best. We’ll look forward to seeing them, seeing how they perform on the top stage.”

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