“It’s true to say that I wasn’t quite ready when I first played for England, but I definitely feel ready now,” Simmonds told i
“Some people just went with the narrative that ‘oh he’s playing well for Exeter, Eddie Jones must have a problem with him,'” says Simmonds I he spent the time winning trophies and breaking records with Exeter but was unwanted by the national team manager.
What happens when a train moves on, when the media noise dies down and another player becomes Flavor of the Month? In the case of Sam Simmonds, who was recalled from the international scene by England this season after more than three years, the urge to succeed has only grown stronger.
“But you’re looking at the back row they chose – Courtney Lawes, Billy [Vunipola] and Tom Curry – and it’s not as simple as ‘You play well, you should play for England’. I knew within myself that I was playing well, I loved playing for Exeter.
“But the players that England had there were world class. I’m not saying I didn’t feel I should be involved. But it never really upset me, I never got bogged down in it.
“Now that I’ve had a taste of being back it would be even more disappointing to be left out for the Six Nations. It would be more of a bottom than having a lot of people talking about me.”
Simmonds speaks from his home outside Exeter ahead of what he describes as Exeter’s ‘must win’ European Cup match against Glasgow on Saturday, as he cradles his young daughter in his arms. Billie’s arrival in early October gave her 26-year-old father a new perspective and perhaps helps explain Simmond’s measured analysis, which includes an admission of what he had to change when he finally returned to England for the autumn internationals in November, though he played just 12 minutes in two substitute appearances in victories over Australia and South Africa.
“It was a mindset shift to love training, which then gave me the best chance of being selected,” says Simmonds. “I love playing rugby – for Exeter since I was at Plymouth and for Brixham and Cornish Pirates. And training was always on the back burner, it was ‘oh yes, you have to train because it leads to the game’.
“But training in England is tough and you have to prepare every day to perform. Eddie likes a team that trains at such a good intensity throughout the week that it gives you the best opportunity when you come to the game to perform. Maybe before, when I was first involved, I didn’t get it.”
If Simmonds retains his place in Jones’ Six Nations squad, which will be named Tuesday, it would be his first taste of the tournament since 2018. And the context has changed a lot since the No. 8, with the foot speed and mobility of a Quick Center helped Exeter win the 2020 league and European double and scored a Premiership record 21 tries in the 2020/21 season, at the end of which Simmonds was voted player of the year in the competition and with the British & Irish Lions – an experience he jokingly rates “nine out of 10,” tainted only by the lack of viewers.
“It’s true to say that I wasn’t quite ready when I first played for England, but I definitely feel ready now,” says Simmonds. “I grew into the player I am, changed a few things and just had time in the saddle, played 100 games for Exeter and got back to where I was before a serious injury [a knee reconstruction later in 2018].”
Curry of Sale was England’s starting number 8 in the autumn, with Simmonds and another number 8 in Harlequin’s Alex Dombrandt on the bench, and the bulkier Vunipola fell. And Jones has talked about winning teams gaining more yards running than kicking thanks to the quicker jerk ball.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed not to have more playing time and more influence at the fall games,” Simmonds said. “But actually being able to get back on the pitch was incredible. In “Dommers” we are in similar positions, but very different in our style of play. I learned from him and just enjoyed being in this environment.
“Eddie said there are five campaigns left before the World Cup, including the fall. I suppose they want a core squad that might band together and get the guys used to training and playing together as much as possible.
Meanwhile, Exeter’s results are up and down, including losing to Glasgow 22-7 in the reverse European game. But Simmonds says he’s seen welcome signs that the Chiefs have rediscovered their desire and drive on defense, as well as the maul and chase and carry during last week’s two-point loss at the Harlequins.
“Right at the start of the season we were tied to last year’s results. The final defeat in the Premiership was hard to take. We looked too early, too far ahead. I feel like now we just have to focus on next week again and not worry about who we could possibly play against in a semi-final or final. It’s something we talked about – that this season could be a very special season in how we approach the second half.”