Hinkley has emerged from the shadows to star for Saints

Aaron Hinkley takes a little time to think when he's asked what he would have done had he retired before his rugby journey really got started.

By Tom Vickers
Thursday, 9th June 2022, 7:00 am
Aaron Hinkley has caught the eye since joining Saints
Aaron Hinkley has caught the eye since joining Saints

'I'd probably be on a building site, grafting away', says the likeable 23-year-old, attending his first Saints media session earlier this week.

But instead of doing those hard yards in the June sunshine, Hinkley has a very different kind of challenge on his plate right now.

He has used his tools to great effect since joining Saints on trial a few months ago, and so successful has he been that he has managed to build the foundations of a career at cinch Stadium at Franklin's Gardens.

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In fact, if Carlsberg did trial periods, Hinkley's would probably be the best trial period in the world.

So good was he against Harlequins and then Saracens that calls for Saints to sign him up became deafening on social media at the end of last month.

The club duly responded, having worked on the deal for some time.

Hinkley was relieved to finally put pen to paper on a permanent contract, especially as it wasn't so long ago that he considered giving up rugby altogether.

He explained: "I left Gloucester (Hinkley's boyhood club) in 2020 to sign a first-team deal at Exeter but I got injured in my first year, in my second Premiership appearance.

"I went on loan at Coventry and though it went well, I had no real luck getting into the team at Exeter.

"I'd been out of the loop for so long so I had to cut my losses as I knew I wasn't going to get re-signed.

"It was extremely frustrating (not to be able to break into the Exeter team) but they were the double champions at that point, the best team in Europe.

"I came in at a difficult time with Coronavirus, there were no second-team games, no loan opportunities so I was put in the shadows as many people in my position had been for a bit.

"When I first went on loan at Coventry, I was thinking about retiring, closer to that side of it than doing what I'm doing now.

"I wasn't really enjoying my rugby and I wasn't enjoying life at that point.

"I've given so much to rugby and you've always got to put your eggs in one basket otherwise you get nothing from it, but I probably would have been on a building site or something, grafting away.

"So to come through it and be where I am now at this point of the season is incredible."

But things at Saints haven't come about through luck, they have come from sheer determination and no shortage of ability.

Rising through the ranks, Hinkley was one of the most highly-rated players in England.

He was a star of the England Under-18s and England Under-20s side and had it not been for a knee injury, there is every chance he would have made it at Exeter, whose boss, Rob Baxter, spoke in glowing terms about him.

When Hinkley's move to Exeter was confirmed in March 2020, Baxter said: "What you see with Aaron is he’s someone we feel who can drop into our combinations very well and provide some of those key elements.

"At the same time, he’s also got other attributes that we can only seeing growing with us more and more.

“I can see him being a guy who has good line-speed attributes; will be strong over the ball; and he’s got a pinball way of getting through contact, which I think will be great for us."

Exeter's loss has so far been Saints' gain.

Hinkley played in the Mobbs Memorial match in April and injuries in the first-team squad meant he was named on the bench against Harlequins a couple of weeks later.

He wasn't expected to get much game time in that crucial Gallagher Premiership clash, but an injury to Juarno Augustus inside the first 10 minutes opened the door.

And Hinkley waltzed through it, delivering one of the most memorable debut displays in the recent history of Saints, starring in a 32-31 win that kept the black, green and gold on track for a top-four spot.

"Coming into the environment so late as well, managing to get a place in the team at the weekend is awesome," Hinkley said.

"I never expected to come in and play at all when it was do or die.

"To manage to come in and get a spot for a few weeks it unbelievable.

"Before the Quins game, all the boys were saying 'you'll only get on if someone's injured'. I was like 'okay'.

"But I backed my ability to be fair, and just got myself in the game early, got busy really early and that's what I focus on.

"It went pretty well. Not too bad."

That is, it's fair to say, an understatement.

Hinkley has caught the eye in every first-team game he has played so far, all three of them to be exact.

So how does he feel to have now signed on for longer than just this season?

"I've been lucky that I've managed to come through and find a club for next year because there's a drop in the salary cap and they're getting rid of that middle player, the one who's not quite there yet," he said.

"I'm extremely happy just to even be here at all.

"I always thought I was going to be staying here because you can't think otherwise.

"I'm just glad to be a part of it and I'm very relieved to have signed that contract."

Saints first got in touch with Hinkley before Christmas with a view to him arriving at the club when his two-year deal at Exeter expired this summer.

But he explained: "There was an opportunity through injury to come here sooner because Saints had a lot of boys down injured and they needed someone to come and help.

"They wanted to see how I fitted into the environment and how I mixed with the other boys.

"I came in and unfortunately failed my fitness test with my knee so I couldn't play straight away.

"But I'm glad I've been able to come in now, they've looked after me and managed to get my knee to where it needs to be.

"I grafted away for a bit and managed to get a game against the Army and I enjoyed that.

"A few weeks later, someone went down and I got on the bench against Quins.

"It's been awesome.

"The coaching staff here is unbelievable and the players are great.

"It's a style of play that really suits me as well, and I'm very, very happy to be here."

Hinkley, who currently lives in a house close to the Gardens with Ed Prowse and Ollie Newman, has clearly loved every minute of his Saints experience so far.

And it will go up a notch, or several, this week as he prepares to be part of a huge Gallagher Premiership play-off semi-final at Leicester Tigers on Saturday.

"I can't wait," he said.

"My boyhood club was Gloucester, and Gloucester-Bath, Northampton-Leicester is the same sort of thing - a bit of bite to it - and I can't wait.

"I've been around a team at Exeter in the past two years and I know what semi-final weeks mean. They seem to rev up a bit.

"The boys seem to get a bit more niggly with each other and it's good to be part of a third semi-final in three seasons."