Alec Hepburn Opens Up About His Scotland Debut

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Alec Hepburn, Scotland cap 1217. It’s not every day you have a pair of cufflinks with your international cap number engraved on them.

A call-up to Gregor Townsend’s squad was an opportunity which the 30-year-old Chiefs prop thought he had closed the door on – on account of the handful of England caps he earned back in 2018.

Hepburn has amassed 179 Chiefs appearances in a nine-year association with the club having debuted against Bath Rugby in October 2015. The Australian-born forward has faced his fair share of trials in that time – from the high of a domestic and European double in 2020 before crashing to the low of a lengthy bout with glandular fever in 2023.

Doggedly working his way back into Rob Baxter’s selection conversations, Hepburn’s performances since returning in an away fixture against Newcastle Falcons earlier this season saw him throw his name back into the ring for Townsend and his thistle-wearing coaches.

“Sitting here having played a Guinness Six Nations campaign for Scotland seemed less likely after having played for England! In all seriousness though, I always knew the Scottish element was there, but I guess it wasn’t on my mind after I got England caps – I thought that door had been closed.

“However, I met up with Gregor before the Rugby World Cup – about 18 months ago – just to touch base. We had a conversation, and he floated the idea to see if I’d be interested in playing for Scotland. It was a really good meeting but within a matter of weeks any decision was taken away from me because I was ill with glandular fever.

“Over that period when I was ill, it would come up a lot in my mind and the prospect of playing for Scotland grew stronger. I thought it’d be such a great goal for me to have in the far distance to achieve.”

Hepburn’s Scottish qualification comes from his Glasgow-born father, George, who sadly passed away before his son pulled on the shirt of his native nation. As Hepburn prepared for his debut against Wales in Cardiff in early February, the enormity of the day and the absence of his father was not lost on him, but the Chiefs man looked to channel it to his advantage.

“I think I was conscious that I didn’t want to run my race too early. Early on there had been a lot of conversations about how I qualified for Scotland, which led to me speaking about my dad a lot, and I was a bit worried that it would come out in too much of an emotional way during the game.

“So, earlier in the morning, I listened to some old music he used to like and shed a few tears to myself – that took away any feeling of nervousness around the game. I enjoyed that as it gave me a clear mind going into the occasion without all that emotional energy.”

The occasion was a tense one – Scotland being chased down from a lengthy lead for a final scoreline of 26-27 and Hepburn’s debut win. Having lifted the Doddie Weir Cup on his first Scottish outing, the prop played in a further three games – a tense affair against France, an ecstatic home win over England claiming the Calcutta Cup and a disappointing trip to Italy falling to defeat to the Azzurri.

Throughout the whole process, Hepburn says he was lucky to have former Chiefs teammate Sam Skinner by his side.

“When you debut, you get a tie and a pair of cufflinks with your cap number on them, so he was the one to present them to me in the changing room post-match. He was also my roommate – I snored so loudly on night one that he left though! But he came back with some headphones that were really good.

“At night, we’d get into our beds and go over all the lineouts. He would translate them into Chiefs calls so that I could know exactly what I was doing. He was really helpful – he gave me guidance on where I should be and what I should be doing.”

With the bit between the teeth having tested himself at the highest level, Hepburn is turning focus back to the run-in to a highly competitive end to the season with Chiefs – top four in the Premiership table is still on the cards as is progression in the knockout rounds of the Investec Champions Cup.

“I’d love to play more international rugby, that’s for sure. The set-up there isn’t too dissimilar – the emphasis from Scotland and here at Chiefs is always on your primary job. So, for me, that’ll be set piece and getting hands on the ball or tackles outside of that, then that’ll be good.”

With his next Chiefs appearance due to be his 180th, there is still time for Hepburn to add to his already impressive Exeter career and ensure he stays at the forefront of Townsend’s mind.

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