Ali Hepher keen to test Exeter Chiefs' progress
Few would have taken more pleasure in Exeter Chiefs' try-laden victory over Sale Sharks than Ali Hepher.
The performance was a culmination of three years' work. Since Hepher's arrival at Sandy Park in 2009, the Chiefs have won promotion to the Aviva Premiership and thrived to such an extent that they will compete in the Heineken Cup this season.
The Chiefs' backs coach was one of the first people his boss, head coach Rob Baxter, mentioned in his post-match press conference, following Exeter's 43-6 win on the opening day of the Aviva Premiership season last weekend.
"Ali Hepher, our backs coach, probably doesn't get the plaudits he should but you can see, when we do start getting some momentum in games, some of our attacking play is really coming to fruition," said Baxter.
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"We had a good amount of ball to do that with against Sale, but he deserves credit for moving our game on."
That progress will be put to arguably its biggest test this weekend when Chiefs visit Hepher's former club, Northampton Saints, with whom he won the Heineken Cup as a player in 2000.
The Chiefs have yet to win at Franklin's Gardens, and that is perhaps why Hepher is measured in his response to Baxter's praise. The hard work is still to come.
"It's nice of Rob to say that," said Hepher. "We have been developing our attack game since we've been here and adding bits all the time.
"If you stand still as an attack or a defence, you are going backwards in this league. It has been great to work with Rob where he has encouraged us to be able to attack games.
"We haven't performed at Northampton and have never been in with a shout of winning the game. Their pack is strong and they pose threats across the board. The challenge is to concentrate on us and get our performance to a level that puts them under pressure.
"We will prepare the same way. It is a club that we respect and one that I owe quite a lot to within my career. Equally, it is one we can attack without too much expectation."
The Chiefs' victory over the Sharks last weekend was their fifth league success in a row over Sale. However, Exeter have only beaten Saints once over the same period in Premiership combat.
Despite the disparity in results, Hepher feels a similar game-plan can be effective. "It is important we don't lose sight of why we were good at the weekend," he said.
"We did the hard work first and that is the important thing. We need to be really accurate and detailed in the things we do. Hopefully that level of quality will result in another good performance."
The Chiefs' strength in depth has undoubtedly been another key component of their success. Their second string won the A League last season and made a winning start to their own campaign last weekend against Bath.
The squad will improve further still when Australia international lock Dean Mumm comes into contention next week. But he can expect no special treatment, according to Hepher.
"It will be great to have him here and it has been a long time coming," he said. "But he is going to have to fight for a space and there is quality already here. It just adds to our depth which we see as a massive positive for the club.
"There is nothing better than competition for places as a player and that drives you on. Hopefully, we get increased levels of performance – if he comes in on top and is the best player, then great, if not, the others guys will get the shirt. It is a big challenge for the whole squad, but it is an exciting one."