Aaron Hinkley has enjoyed a rapid turnaround in fortunes in recent months, which is set to continue with Northampton Saints’ Gallagher Premiership semi-final against Leicester Tigers on Saturday.
It comes just over a week after it was announced the 23-year-old had been awarded a permanent contract for the men in Black, Green and Gold following an extremely impressive trial period at the Club.
However, to get to this point, Hinkley has had to go down what Saints’ Director of Rugby Chris Boyd referred to as ‘the low road’.
As someone who shone at Under-20 level with England, big things were expected of the young back rower, and he demonstrated some early promise in the Premiership Rugby Cup with boyhood club Gloucester.
When it was announced Hinkley would sign for Exeter Chiefs in the summer of 2020, it looked as though he would be taking another step up the ladder, but that was not how it turned out.
After suffering a serious knee injury in just his second game for the Chiefs, Hinkley went a year without playing competitively.
This was the result of a combination of the stiff competition for back row places at Sandy Park and the lack of rugby outside of the Premiership caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It was extremely frustrating, but they were the double Champions at that point. They were the best team in Europe,” Hinkley said.
“I suppose I came in at a difficult time, with coronavirus, because there were no second-team games, there were no loan opportunities, so I was in the shadows, as many people in my kind of position had been for a bit.
“I’ve been lucky that I’ve managed to come through and find a club for the next year, and I’m really enjoying my time so far with Saints.”Aaron Hinkley
Hinkley finally returned to the field during a loan spell at Championship club Coventry in October of this season, but his lack of opportunities at Exeter had led to him falling out of love with rugby.
It came to a point where he was even considering his future in the sport.
Hinkley said: “When I first started being put on loan to Coventry, I was thinking more or less about retiring.
“It was closer to that side of it, rather than coming through and playing and doing what I’m doing now.
“I really had my head down, I wasn’t enjoying my rugby, I wasn’t really enjoying life at that point, so to come through it and to be where I am now at this point in the season is absolutely incredible.
“I’ve always put my eggs in one basket – otherwise you’re not putting everything into it – so I don’t know [what I might have done if I had given up rugby], but I probably would have ended up on a building site or something like that, grafting away.”
Saints, however, threw him a lifeline as Boyd’s side needed cover for a spate of injuries in the back row.
In keeping with his still nascent career, not everything went according to plan, as Hinkley failed a fitness test – his knee still causing him problems – meaning he could not play straight away.
Nonetheless, getting the call from Boyd back in the winter started a process that rekindled his passion for the game.
Hinkley said: “My first contact with Saints came before Christmas – it was a long time ago.
“But that was for next year and then they just wanted me to come in. They might have wanted me for next year anyway, but they just wanted to see how I fitted in with the environment, how I’d mix with the other boys, and stuff.
“The coaching staff here are unbelievable, the players are great and the style of play really suits me as well – so I’m very, very happy to be here.”Aaron Hinkley
Saints supporters got a first glimpse of Hinkley in a Black, Green and Gold jersey during the Mobbs Memorial Match against the British Army in April, a hugely promising showing that included a try.
However, not many would have predicted the meteoric rise that followed, typified by a barnstorming performance after coming off the bench for the injured Juarno Augustus in the early stages of the vital 32-31 win over Harlequins later that month.
“I thought I’d only get on if someone got injured,” Hinkley said. “I back my ability, to be fair, but just getting myself in the game early, getting busy really early was what I focused on; just getting my roles right, and stuff like that, and it went pretty well.”
Hinkley went on to play the full 80 minutes of the 42-38 defeat at Saracens last month before featuring from the start again last week as Saints thrashed Newcastle Falcons 65-26 to finish fourth in the Premiership.
Coming up next is his first East Midlands derby, with Saints set to battle it out for a place in the final at Twickenham when they face Leicester at Welford Road.
If there is one positive from his time with Exeter, who made reaching the play-offs a habit, it’s that he knows how to prepare for a semi-final – where it is do-or-die as far as the season is concerned.
Hinkley said: “Obviously, I’ve been there the past two years, not necessarily playing in them, but I’ve been in and around it.
“I know what semi-final weeks mean – the weeks seem to rev up a bit and the boys seem to get a bit more intense with each other.
“It’s good to be part of what is a third semi-final in three seasons and I’m looking forward to the occasion.”