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'A real point of difference': The evidence that convinced the Lions to back Sam Simmonds even though he hasn't played a Test in 38 months

By Liam Heagney

Trending on RugbyPass

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It sounds like a far-fetched experiment, picking a player to go on a Lions to South Africa who hasn’t played at Test level since March 2018, but tour boss Warren Gatland and attack coach Gregor Townsend have explained precisely why England outcast Sam Simmonds was a must-pick selection in their eyes for the trip to the home of the World Cup-winning Springboks.

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Simmonds enjoyed a fairytale rise from obscurity at the start of his career, going from playing Championship level rugby for Cornish Pirates to making an England Test debut eleven months later in November 2017. However, he didn’t stay around all that long in the international fold.

He last featured under Eddie Jones when they were beaten by Ireland in a closing round Six Nations game in March 2018 and while a ruptured ACL six months later put his career on hold for a considerable time while he battled back to fitness, a challenge he told RugbyPass all about in a revealing April 2019 interview, he has since remained overlooked by England despite his stellar trophy-winning form for Exeter. 

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Jones has stubbornly stood by Billy Vunipola when it comes to filling the England No8 jersey, refusing to even call up Simmonds to training and take a closer look at a player whose try-scoring figures and dynamic ball-carrying have been lighting up the Gallagher Premiership and Heineken Champions Cup for quite some time. 

However, this consistent level of club performance resulted in Gatland sounding out Simmonds at the start of the year and he followed up that interest by turning up at some recent Exeter to watch the back-rower strut his stuff live. With Vunipola struggling for form at Test level, the Lions boss saw enough in Simmonds’ Chiefs displays to convince him to include the 26-year-old in his squad to take on South Africa who apparently don’t enjoy facing deceptive players. 

“It was just looking at South Africa, just looking at the opposition a little bit,” said Gatland when asked why he had decided to select a back-rower who hasn’t played a Test match in years. “If you tuck your ball under your arm and run straight they [South Africa] love that sort of thing, so I was conscious of having balance in our back row. 

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“One of the things he [Simmonds] has, and Taulupe Faletau, is that footwork and deception… he’s quick, he can run lots of variations and we have seen him at Exeter do that really effectively from lineout, not just as a forward carrying but almost running like a back. 

“He gives us some really good options but then again you are trying to get that loose forward balance right. Exeter have that with (Dave) Ewers and (Jacques) Vermeulen, a big six and a big seven. It complements him well and gives him the opportunity to do the things that he does well. I’m conscious of that and that when we pick our team we look at our loose forwards, but we have also got to make sure we get our second row and front row combinations right too.”

This dynamism which Simmonds has was something assistant coach Townsend elaborated further on when he was asked for his thoughts on the Lions backing a player who hasn’t featured in the Test arena for an age. “He is undoubtedly a back-rower who can add to your attack and who you would want on the ball as much as possible and there is a number of ways that he does that. 

“Exeter use him out wide off set-piece plays, he is dynamic off the base of the scrum and if you are playing the multi-phase game you want him on the ball. There might be a little more kicking at Test level than in a few club games so getting him involved on the counter-attack, whether it is catching the ball or being a second or third receiver out there, his pace has shown that he can do that as well as the centres and some of the wingers we have in the squad.”

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Townsend had no qualms about Simmonds going from Exeter to the Lions without being involved with England. “You see a consistent level of performance from him and Exeter have played some big games, semi-final and final in Europe last year and in the Premiership, and he stood out against international players. 

“He is going to be going up against international players on this tour like he has for Exeter. He has got a real point of difference and that is something that we appreciate in being able to play a different way, he brings a different skill set and physical ability to others in the squad. 

“It is really important we have that balance, have that ability to go we want to play more this type of rugby or want to play more another type of rugby or want to change the way we want to play during a game. There are players that are flexible and adaptable who should be able to do that.”

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'A real point of difference': The evidence that convinced the Lions to back Sam Simmonds even though he hasn't played a Test in 38 months

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