Don Armand: Exeter forward on Chiefs' title tilt, England & World Cup prospects

Don Armand
Don Armand has started all six of Exeter's play-off games in the previous three seasons and captained them in the 2018 Premiership final

Six years ago Don Armand was a relatively unknown 24-year-old back-row struggling to break into the Stormers Super Rugby side.

He confesses he had "not heard much about Exeter", and would have struggled to pin-point the city on a map before moving to Devon in 2013. His knowledge of the English game was pretty sparse too.

"I'd literally watched about five minutes of Wasps versus [Leicester] Tigers when Lawrence Dallaglio was playing in a final," he recalls.

"I was either playing rugby, studying at university or watching Super Rugby, so English rugby wasn't a big thing."

Armand may have known little then about the emerging Premiership outfit, but their reputation - and that of director of rugby Rob Baxter - had reached Cape Town.

"I heard from people that did know about how good Rob was with the team, and how good the team environment was compared to what I was used to," he said.

"It wasn't about what I saw on TV, it was more what I heard from people that didn't need to say good things about them but did."

Don Armand
As well as playing for the Stormers in Super Rugby, Armand was part of the Western Province side that won the 2012 Currie Cup

Fast forward to 2019 and Armand is regarded as one of English rugby's most dominant and versatile loose forwards, equally adept at flanker or number eight.

One of a host of players Baxter has plucked from relative obscurity and polished into a sparkling gem, the 30-year-old is a mainstay of a Chiefs side targeting a fourth successive Premiership final and a second straight campaign as the league's table-toppers at the end of the regular season.

On Saturday he is poised to make his 100th Premiership appearance when fourth-placed Northampton visit Sandy Park.

"I've seen the team grow, I've seen the guys around me grow," Armand tells BBC Sport.

"It doesn't surprise me that we're in this position. It is where we need to be and it is where we should be and I think going forward we want to find ourselves here in this situation a lot more.

"It's because of the groundwork that's been put in from before I got here, that is still being pushed by Rob Baxter, because he's been the one consistent thing."

Will he add to his two England caps?

Don Armand and Eddie Jones shake hands
Armand and Eddie Jones shake hands after Armand's England debut against Argentina in 2017

While Armand is not a controversial man by any means, his lack of England appearances has become a subject of intense debate in some quarters.

He has only featured twice, as a replacement - once on the 2017 tour to Argentina after being a late call-up for Lions-bound James Haskell, and the other in a Six Nations loss to Ireland at Twickenham in March 2018.

Frustrated initially at his lack of caps, the Zimbabwe-born forward appears more relaxed now about any future international prospects.

"It got into quite a vicious cycle where the England squad would come out and no-one would be 'well done, these guys are going to do well', it was suddenly picking apart the squad and why everyone shouldn't be there.

"It got frustrating because we had Chiefs guys in there and you want them to feel positive about it - if I was there I wouldn't want someone to be saying I shouldn't be there.

"Eddie Jones had his reasons and that was then. I've just got to keep going forward and the focus has got to be the team that is picking me and that's the Chiefs and make sure I put my best foot forward for them."

With a World Cup on the horizon, Armand has a maximum of three more games to try to change Jones' mind before the England head coach names his preliminary squad to prepare for the global jamboree in Japan starting in September.

"You never write it off, but it would be way out of line for me to say that my focus was on playing so I could get to the World Cup," Armand says.

"There's guys that approach the game differently and they'll want to play well to be in the World Cup.

"My approach is if I play well and if I play in a World Cup then it's great, but I don't need that to be a distraction right now because that's two months into the future and it's out of my hands.

"What's important is each of us play our best this weekend so we go forward with a bit of momentum into the semis and hopefully the final."