Exeter’s Premiership title tilt has suffered a blow as forwards Sam Simmonds and Jonny Hill are set for lengthy spells on the sidelines. Simmonds injured his knee in last weekend’s 28-11 victory against Worcester, while Hill has suffered a hand ligament injury. Director of rugby Rob Baxter delivered a pretty glum assessment of their respective conditions, and they will be sorely missed when Leinster visit for their Champions Cup opener next week.
“It’s a little bit early to say how bad they are at the moment,” said Baxter. “Hopefully, they will be back before the end of the season, but I can’t really say at this stage.” That is pretty worrying for fans, particularly when you consider the rich vein of form that Simmonds has been mining. The 23-year-old England back-row finished as the joint-highest try scorer in the Premiership last season, and he has already crossed for five so far this season. Meanwhile, Hill has just broken into the England set-up and he is a vital presence in the second row.
Yet if you check out a review of betting sites and find the best odds available, you will see that Exeter are still the second favourites to win the Premiership. They were 2016/17 champions and they finished top of the table last time around, then thrashed Newcastle in the semis, but lost the final to Saracens. This time around Saracens are the even money favourites to win the title, but Exeter are not far behind at just 2/1, while the next team, Wasps are all the way out at 10/1. Like many pundits, the bookmakers expect this season’s Premiership to turn into a two-horsed race, with Exeter and Saracens set for another epic final showdown.
After losing to Exeter on Saturday, Warriors director of rugby Alan Solomons said: “Exeter fully deserved to win. They and Saracens are ahead of the rest. The league is a two-horse race.” Exeter have already vanquished Wasps and Newcastle on the road this season, and they have picked up strong home wins against Leicester, Sale and Worcester. The Leicester game in particular was an utter thrashing, and confidence remains high among the camp.
Baxter also contradicted himself with a more upbeat comment regarding the health of Simmonds and Hill. “You’ve just got to deal with these things, they happen, and use it to get the guys fit in every other area,” he said. “Both Sam and Jonny can develop other areas of their physique and elements they want to keep working on in their programmes anyway, so we’ve just got to get them back fit as soon as we can and move on. They’re both good players and both have a significant part to play in the rest of the season. It’s a long old season and it’ll be amazing how quick they’ll be back in the Exeter shirt.”
That is a far more optimistic assessment. It really is a long old season, and Exeter just need to hang in there around the top before welcoming that duo back into the fold. Every team will have injury problems, and they need to bring in reliable squad players to help out. Saracens are understandably still the favourites to win the trophy this season, as they too have won five on the bounce to storm to the top of the table.
Baxter has also sought to deflect away any talk of Exeter seizing glory this season. “I’m very pleased to win and with the foundation that we have laid down but we are not firing at 100 per cent and I’m concerned that we won’t be able to shake out of that lethargy when we’re challenged by the best,” he said. The Leinster game will be a great barometer of how well-equipped Exeter are to challenge for honours this season, particularly with Simmonds and Hill missing, but Baxter is a hard taskmaster and his constant demands for improvement could help them return to the summit of the game.
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