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Sam Simmonds is not the heaviest back-row forward in England but he makes his presence felt in other ways. Robert Kitson of the Guardian charts the rapid rise of the small town boy from south Devon.
So here is a good quiz question: how many new caps have represented England since Eddie Jones took over as England’s head coach?
On the eve of the 2018 NatWest 6 Nations championship the answer was 24 in the space of 23 Tests, an illustration of the sheer number of bodies required by all leading Test nations nowadays. Of those 24 debutants, revealingly, no fewer than 17 have been forwards.
The attrition rate up front means even the most talented of newcomers should be wary of assuming a lengthy international career will necessarily follow. Harlequins’ Jack Clifford was the first fresh face capped by Jones two years ago; neither he, Paul Hill nor Teimana Harrison, all of whom were introduced in the same 2016 Six Nations, are currently at the forefront of Jones’s plans. The moral of the story for Exeter’s Sam Simmonds is obvious: winning that coveted first cap is the easy part.
Not that Simmonds needs telling just how quickly sporting life can be transformed. A year ago, he had yet to make his Premiership debut for the Chiefs and was playing in the British & Irish Cup for Cornish Pirates; now, all of a sudden, he is an important cog in England’s back-row machine in the absence of the injured Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes and who could doubt it after his two blistering tries against Italy last Sunday? His story is essentially Cinderella with studs on.
Not your typical No.8
It just underlines how far raw speed – “Hopefully my pace can be a point of difference” – dynamism and attitude can propel you if you seize your big chance when it materialises. Simmonds, who now weighs 102kg, is nowhere near as big as Vunipola but the “scrawny” red-headed teenager who first ventured up to Exeter from nearby Teignmouth changed shape long ago.
“When I first came to Exeter I was pretty small. Jack Yeandle [Exeter’s hooker] used to say I was absolutely tiny. I was only 90kg but around that time I spent a lot of time in the gym rehabbing a knee injury. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise…that was when I really pushed on with my weightlifting and reached 100kg.”
Jones wants him to keep eating and, nutrition-wise, the 23-year-old is more clued up than he used to be. “I was eating the right stuff but I wasn’t eating enough of it. On a normal day I’d have breakfast but wouldn’t eat again until lunch. I’d come in, train and find I’d lost a bit of weight. Now I’m having snacks in between.”
It does no harm that his rugby-loving father David and uncle Rob are both in the crab and lobster fishing business. “Whenever I go to my Dad’s he’s always got crab, lobster, almost any type of shellfish going. It’s a bonus, isn’t it?”
Simmonds, like his Exeter colleague Jack Nowell, has never been tempted to make his living out at sea – “We work hard but that’s a different type of working hard” – but is not shy of serious graft himself. “I’d say I’m pretty hard working but that’s the same for any Exeter player. Both Rob Baxter and Eddie want unselfish players who work really hard for the team.
"The other day at training it was pretty awful: the wind was howling, the rain was diagonal but we were still out there for a couple of hours. You get used to it. Ultimately the hard work you put in during the week pays off at the weekends.” "My focus was just to push through and play Premiership rugby"
It certainly has done recently. Simmonds’ semi-final try against Saracens at Sandy Park will forever be part of Chiefs’ folklore, his dramatic late intervention paving the way for the club to become Premiership champions at Wasps’ expense last May.
Subsequently he made his first Test start against Samoa in November, making him the seventh Chief (eight if you include Ollie Devoto who was picked between leaving Bath and relocating to Devon) to be capped by England since Nowell was first selected in February 2014.
“I didn’t imagine it happening even a couple of years ago. I’ve spoken to boys who have said ‘I always knew I was going to play international rugby’ but my focus was just to push through and play Premiership rugby.”
Talk of the town
His formative days on loan at Brixham, Plymouth Albion and the Pirates, however, have prepared him better for the big time than people might imagine. Baxter’s advice to him was invariably the same and remains relevant now: make things happen and good things will happen for you.
“Rob always used to talk to us younger boys and say: ‘If you perform well in the Championship you’re going to get opportunities.’ It is a pretty tough league to play in. There are some big blokes and it’s very physical. But the more I’ve played the more I realise it doesn’t matter who you come up against. You see that with Exeter. You could be playing a team of superstars but if we get everything right – physically, tactically, emotionally – I feel we can beat anyone.”
Baxter, in turn, could not be more pleased for a player who heads this season’s Premiership rankings for defenders beaten by a forward: “He should do everything he can to grab the opportunity with both hands…he’s got himself to the front of the queue with some really good performances.”
Back at Teignmouth RFC they will be cheering on only the third international player in the club’s history. The last one, Frank Davey, has an unusual claim to fame: he was picked to face Wales at Twickenham in 1931 having played for Teignmouth’s second team the previous weekend.
Simmonds and his brother Joe, also on the Chiefs’ playing roster, still live in the town and local pride will be at the forefront of Simmonds’s thoughts when he wears the red rose and sings God Save The Queen.
“I’m pretty calm before matches but everyone gets nervous. If you don’t you’re in the wrong game. As a kid I remember watching England singing the national anthem so it’s pretty surreal to be there doing it yourself. Both Mum and Dad get quite emotional; it’s nice to know you’ve done them proud.”England Women take on Wales in the Six Nations at the Twickenham Stoop before the men's game at 12.15 on Saturday 10 February. Tickets available from £10 for an adult and £5 for U16s. Visit www.quins.co.uk to book your place.