Todd Blackadder was not fully aware of who Tom Dunn was when he was appointed as Bath's director or rugby in 2016. Few people were.
Despite being on the books of Bath since he was 15, Dunn had yet to make his first Premiership start at the age of 24 when Blackadder arrived. Physically he is not much to look at compared to some front-row behemoths. But then Blackadder, the former All Black who coached the Canterbury Crusaders for seven years, witnessed him in training smashing everything that moved. "He was pretty much used as a body bag here for a couple of seasons, but I was like how are we not starting this guy?" Blackadder said.
Since making his maiden league start against Gloucester in October 2016, Dunn has worked his way into the England training squad and established himself as the apple of Blackadder's eye. Last week, Dunn played the full 80 minutes in the 20-16 defeat against Toulon making 31 tackles and 11 carries. Earlier in the season he made 36 tackles against London Irish. Blackadder quickly exhausts his list of superlatives in describing his performances.
"I think what he showed at the weekend is that he can do it against the best, but he has been doing that for the past month," Blackadder said. "He has just been astronomical. It is just what he does.
"He is like an Energiser bunny. His tackle selection is unbelievable. He's an incredible chop tackler. In England training he ran 26km. A normal week would be 12-16km. That shows what an engine he has got. For me he has to be in line for selection. You can't deny a guy like him. He would make any other team in the world. If you look at what Tom Dunn does around the field, he would make the All Blacks I reckon."
Dunn himself puts little store in the jaw-dropping tackle count he has racked up this season. "It is easy to go out and make 25 tackles that are passive," Dunn said. "What I pride myself on is the impact of my tackles rather than just the number I make. You have to make a difference when you make a tackle. It is a mentality that you are going to work harder than your opposite number whether it is targeting the ball in the tackle or you are ensuring they cannot quick ball. You have to make a difference."
Aggression, raw and unadulterated, is the trademark feature of Dunn's game. He explains that he operates in two zones when he is playing: his blue room and his red room in a technique he learnt from sport psychologist Don Macpherson. The blue room is for his lineout throwing, where he controls his breathing to be as calm as possible. For everything else, he aims to be in his red room when "I'm running around hitting people."
There's no guessing which room Dunn was occupying in the preseason training session against the Newport Gwent Dragons when his confrontation with Rhys Buckley sparked a brawl between the sides. He does not excuse his actions entirely, but does point out that it was his first contact training session in six months after breaking his ankle against Harlequins in February.
"I probably was more amped than if I had been playing regularly," Dunn said. "But you want to be the one that's a little bit too aggressive rather than being undercooked."
You can imagine Eddie Jones smiling with approval. When the England head coach was first appointed two years ago, he complained that were plenty of good technical players but far too few mongrels for his liking.
Dunn received glowing reports from many of England's coaching staff for his performances in training in the autumn but as ever Jones did not sugarcoat his assessment. "He was happy with what I did but he just didn't think I was ready for Test rugby," Dunn said. "He says I am tough character but need a tougher body. I look a bit sloppy. I need to get rid of the sloppiness, get heavier and put on more lean mass."
Dunn is happy to bide his time while he makes those improvements. Patience is a virtue he has come to learn. In many ways, Dunn is a throwback to how front-rowers used to be bred in the West Country. He had to serve a proper apprenticeship going out on loan to Chippenham, Bournemouth, London Scottish and Rotherham as well as training as a butcher at Ruby & Whitein Clifton. Taking the long route to becoming a Premiership starter has served him well.
"There's a massive set piece focus in the Championship and the guys I was scrumming with at Rotherham (Eric Fry and Tomas Francis) are now internationals," Dunn said. "When it comes down to Bournemouth and Chippenham you have not got the referee on your side so you need to learn to deal with things yourself and fix things without help from the official. I guess I earned my stripes a different way to other guys. There's an advantage to going both routes. It gives you a different outlook and different approach when you get to the same destination."
Tomorrow (Sat), Dunn will get a second crack at Toulon as Matt Banahan prepares to make his 250th appearance. Banahan was one of the players Dunn watched as a kid when he was a season-ticket holder at the Rec for three seasons. Too young to remember the club's glory days, Dunn is nonetheless determined to end the club's long trophy drought.
"There are some boys in the team who are getting on a bit. They have got to achieve something now or when will they? That's a real desperate feeling within the squad. You don't want to have a 12-15 year career and look back on it with two runners up medals. If not now then when. This year is as good as any."