Rob Baxter builds Exeter Chiefs squad as duo sign new deals
ROB Baxter has handed two of his Exeter Chiefs players extended contracts as he builds his squad for next season.
Hooker Chris Whitehead and academy prop Luke Cowan-Dickie have both committed themselves to the club until 2015.
Whitehead, 26, who joined the Chiefs from Wasps in 2010, was out of contract in the summer and Baxter moved swiftly to retain his services.
England under-20s ace Cowan-Dickie was already on a deal until 2014 but the head coach decided to reward the 19-year-old's progress with improved terms.
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After Matt Jess and Craig Mitchell penned new deals in September, Baxter now has 26 players whose contracts are due to expire in the summer.
And he thinks Whitehead can target a place in an England squad if he continues to help the Chiefs progress on the pitch.
Baxter said: "He (Whitehead) is the right age in the right position to really be pushing for England representation in my opinion.
"I think there was a period last season and this season when you could say he's been one of the form hookers and, based on rankings, he's been there or thereabouts.
"I think he's been a little unfortunate that a lot of emphasis seems to have been put on Tom Youngs at Leicester, but without that he's going to be there or thereabouts.
"I think the key for Chris, like a lot of the rest of our players, is to be part of a couple of big seasons for Exeter.
"He needs to be one of those guys who's part of a strong squad, pushing us up the table, because the majority of your England players come from the sides that win things and stay around the top for some period of time.
"If they drive us to the top of the league and keep us there, international recognition will come pretty quickly."
Whitehead currently has to battle for the No. 2 jersey with Neil Clark and Simon Alcott, with Jack Yeandle pushing from the academy, but Baxter thinks Cowan-Dickie could be another option at hooker in the future.
Older brother Tom is already a hooker in Exeter's academy but Baxter believes Luke's next position may be in the middle of the front row.
"Luke is at the stage of his career where we're thinking whether he is going to be an out-and-out loosehead because we think he has some potential as a hooker," he said.
"He's one of the players you think wherever you pick him on a rugby field he can do damage. He's an exceptional ball carrier for his age.
"For him to be linked to the club now for the next couple of years means he can concentrate on his development, we can concentrate on his development and look to drive him through into the senior squad as quickly as he's ready.
"There's no doubt he's an exceptional talent. Physically he's got some kind of X-factor – he knows how to harness the power of his body. What we've got to do is keep developing him as a player and see where things go.
"He's a very good young loosehead but it may be that, down the line, it is best for him to move across. Those are things we can manage over quite a long period of time.
"He's an England under-20 international now, I want him to have every opportunity to take the next steps to being an England player. That means he's got to work very hard to get into a Premiership side, then he's got to keep working hard to keep those honours rolling in as the years go by."