Eyebrows were raised in some quarters when Exeter’s Alec Hepburn was named in Scotland’s squad for the Six Nations, the prop having previously won six caps for England under Eddie Jones. 

But the prop answered those critics with a strong cameo off the bench to help Scotland crawl over the line in Cardiff.  

Hepburn’s route to international rugby, for either of the teams he’s now played for, has not been a conventional one. He grew up in Hopetoun, a 500-person town on the south coast of Western Australia before moving to England with his parents in 2006.  

At the age of 14, Hepburn had never even picked up a rugby ball, far less dreamed of playing on the international stage. Instead he harboured dreams of becoming a basketball player.  

However, just seven years after first learning the game, and following successful spells with Henley Hawks and London Welsh, he was signed as a 21-year-old by Exeter.  

Hepburn’s pedigree by then was apparent – he was part of the England under-20 side that won the Junior World Cup alongside his long-time Exeter colleagues Luke Cowan-Dickie, Henry Slade and Jack Nowell, plus Lions Anthony Watson and Ross Moriarity, the ex-Wales back-row.  

His club form eventually saw Eddie Jones hand Hepburn his England debut in Rome on the opening weekend of the 2018 Six Nations. Five more caps followed, but none since November 2018.  

That meant Hepburn was cast into the international wilderness – until Gregor Townsend came calling 18 months ago.  

READ MORE: Scotland squad for 2024 Six Nations campaign announced

“I first spoke to Gregor September 2022 and we had a conversation or two then but at that point, I took ill with glandular fever which knocked me out for 10 months.  

“Any early meeting didn’t really count for much because I wasn’t able to play.” 

By this point, Hepburn had been joined at Sandy Park by Scotland internationals Jonny Gray and Stuart Hogg, and he kept reminding them of his eligibility through a Glasgow-born father.  

“I speak to Jonny because we sit next to each other in the changing room and I said I needed to do this [play for Scotland].  

Scotland Rugby News: Jonny Gray is one of Hepburn's Exeter Chiefs team-matesJonny Gray is one of Hepburn's Exeter Chiefs team-mates (Image: SNS)

“I don’t actually know if it was him that passed it on. I think my dad’s family history, flew under the radar, so it maybe did take Jonny to mention it." 

Hepburn’s family has ties with Scottish Rugby – and with Murrayfield, where he’ll hope to make a home debut this weekend.  

“It’s a little complicated. My father was born in Glasgow, but his family moved around a bit – his parents took him to Australia, but he moved back to England and I went to live with him there.  

“We always had strong Scottish heritage but we moved around a lot as a family does in the 21st century. 

“My great-great uncle, Charles Hepburn, and another fellow [Herbert Ross] were First World War veterans.  

“They started a whisky company and employed a lot of ex-servicemen.  

“It must have tasted good for a few people – they managed to amass a little bit of money from it and he sold it in 1959 and passed on the proceeds.  

“Some went to Glasgow Zoo, some went to Glasgow University and then some went to the SRU for undersoil heating at Murrayfield.” 

READ MORE: Five things we learned from Scotland's win in Cardiff

The 30-year-old prop admitted his second international debut at the Principality Stadium was a poignant experience. His dad George died in 2018.  

“I hope he’s proud. I had a moment this morning where I was reflecting a lot upon that. I know he’s always proud of us but I think this would be a little bit more special wearing a Scotland shirt.” 

He said his family – including his mum Dolores who had flown in from Australia for the match – were in his thoughts as he lined up to sing Flower of Scotland for the first time.  

“I needed to keep my face. If I thought too much about it, I’d get too emotional just because of the circumstances.  

“Thankfully my mum was able to be here – a lot of my other family weren’t - but I guess you always think about those who aren’t here on days like today." 

When Gregor Townsend named Hepburn in his squad, the Scotland coach said the prop had taken some time before committing to switching allegiance.  

Scotland Rugby News: Scotland head coach Gregor TownsendScotland head coach Gregor Townsend (Image: SNS)

Hepburn said he wanted to ensure playing for Scotland wouldn’t affect his club career.  

“My first thought was how it might impact my club career because I’d been at Exeter for nearly a decade. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed playing there so I wanted to speak to Rob [Baxter] and other people to see if that would affect me going forward.  

"I’d be lying if I wasn’t a bit apprehensive of what other people might think but after being out for so long, I just thought if I ever get the opportunity, I’d love to seize it. Gregor gave me that opportunity and hopefully I can seize it.” 

Asked whether he expects criticism having switched from England to Scotland, Hepburn said he’ll take any flak on the chin.   

“Objectively it probably would have been a bit funny to see it but I never knew what rugby was until I moved to England when I was 14.  

“I only learned to play when I was in England – I wanted to play basketball when I was at home.  

“They taught me how to play rugby and for that I’m grateful but I think a lot of people wouldn’t have known my father was proud to be Scottish, he got married in his tartan.  

“It’s not just a loose connection, so for me after being out for a while I thought I'd love to prove to myself that I could do it and any flak that came my way, I’d just have to take it.” 

Hepburn has managed to get his hands on a couple of bottles of his great-great uncle’s Red Hackle whisky. After victory in Cardiff, he’s hoping for a few more impactful displays with Scotland before he toasts his ancestors.  

"I’ve found a bottle or two, one was in Italy, but I’ve never tasted it. I’ve needed a special occasion so maybe some day soon I’ll open it.”