Just five minutes into Exeter’s top-notch clash against the Bristol Bears on April 23, Sam Simmonds awkwardly fell into a tackle, rolling an ankle he had injured two weeks before. He remained on the ground for a few minutes before carefully returning to his teammates, his discomfort clear.
The No.8 continued to deliver another talismanic performance, playing an hour before Exeter’s coaching staff felt safe enough to pull him off, still limping, in the 20-12 victory. Sitting in the stands at Ashton Gate that night, Lions head coach Warren Gatland cannot fail to be impressed. Simmonds’ drive and speed are on display almost every week – and Gatland has been a frequent spectator at Exeter games since the Six Nations – but here is proof of the 26-year-old’s tenacity.
This is a very underrated quality at Simmonds. With his speed and skill, Simmonds plays like an eighth fullback, but he is truly a forward at heart. The first thing Exeter head coach Ali Hepher pointed out about his performance was not the 50-meter break where he was recorded running at 21 mph or his unloading for the Tom O test. ‘Flaherty, but what he called his “dirty job” and the three tackles did on the rebound during a pass.
Gatland is known to appreciate this type of mixed-race attitude, especially when faced with the Springboks who will quickly focus on the slightest sign of apprehension. According to everyone who knows him, Simmonds, who has shown no lasting effects from the injury, would like this type of physical challenge. “He’s tough Sam, really tough,” said attacking coach Rob Hunter. “He will never back down.”
His qualities are not universally appreciated despite being the reigning European player of the year. He won seven caps for England when he had just broken onto the scene with Exeter and none since 2018. During this time he became one of the league’s most impressive performers and is on the point of breaking all kinds of test records. Of course, the more the train grows, the less inclined England head coach Eddie Jones will be to select it. This in part reflects Jones ‘faith in Billy Vunipola regardless of his physical form, although he always preferred to convert Tom Curry to an open-side at No.8 during the Saracens’ absence at the Six Nations of the last year.
In a sense, the Exeter coaching staff would agree that Jones is correct in assuming that Simmonds is not directly replacing Vunipola. Rugby director Rob Baxter’s face turned a deep blue as he repeatedly explained that you can’t use Simmonds how you use Vunipola, which is like inserting a 16 stone square peg into a 20 stone round hole.
“If you choose Sam, you also have to decide how you are going to put the ball in his hands,” Hunter said. “There is no point in choosing him and then telling him to participate in the breakdown at every scrum. He can do it. But that’s not what you choose it for. You have to be ready to put the ball in his hands. He’s a much better player than he was three years ago when he was capped. His defense this year has been fantastic. It was easy to dismiss its value because of the way we play, whatever that means.
The question is whether Gatland will attribute Jones’ point of view or learn from his mistake by placing too much faith in an unfit Vunipola in the Six Nations. The Irish trio of CJ Stander, Caelan Doris and Jack Conan, who impressed in their heads-up against Simmonds in the Champions Cup quarter-finals, represent alternate options.
With Exeter virtually assured of qualifying for the play-offs and very likely to reach the Premiership final, Simmonds would not be available for Lions training camp in Jersey as well as the countless warm-up against Japan. against him. Yet after a low-key performance against Leinster, Simmonds could no longer have asserted his rights in his last audition against Bristol.
“It was a fantastic performance from Sam,” Baxter said. “He had an absolute storm. He looked so strong and so fast. Looks like it’s going to take a bit of handling as the weather dries up and the grounds dry out. He’ll run with a bit of abandon, I hope. This is exactly what you need to do. The games run out before the selection (of the Lions) and you must maximize your opportunities. “
The prospect of Simmonds lashing out on the rock hard tracks of the high veld has surely crossed Gatland’s mind the past few days. Final impressions can be difficult to change.