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'I wasn't performing, I wasn't in the right headspace to lead'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

Trending on RugbyPass

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Exeter talisman Joe Simmonds won’t lie. He’d love the Chiefs to do another magical Gallagher Premiership/Heineken Champions Cup double, something he believes they are capable of achieving now that the current season is reaching its business end. It’s just that he never wants to experience again the stress and strain that went hand-in-hand 17 months ago with their behind closed doors rugby double at the height of the pandemic.

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The success was wonderful, no doubt, an epic tale now colourfully recorded for posterity in the BT Sport documentary, Devon Double. However, living with the fear of a virus test going wrong and having your dreams dashed of playing in the biggest of big club matches was quite the ordeal, something he never wants to endure again.

Just ask Racing and Wasps, the teams that Exeter ultimately defeated in those European and domestic deciders. These French and English rivals each had their preparations for the respective finals compromised by positive test results, a panic that the Chiefs somehow managed to avoid. “It was scary to be fair,” admitted Simmonds to RugbyPass over an exclusive Zoom call that began with reflections on the anxious October 2020 shakedown which eventually spelt glory for Exeter.

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Belonging – Back in the Game

“One positive test and you are out of the finals and definitely close to the time every single player was in lockdown. If we had to go to the shop you’d send your missus down there to get it just to make sure we didn’t meet anyone or came into contact with anyone who had it. It was a scary time definitely.

“No one has been involved in a European final before so to be hit down by covid and miss that game against Racing would have been heartbreaking. Yeah, it was sketchy times. Even when we were training we were cutting things short because we didn’t want to be around each other for too long because we had 50 players in the one meeting room so it was short, sharp training but that brought the best out in us. We were training at an intensity that probably most other teams weren’t. It definitely paid off.”

Most certainly it did. Doubles were supposed to be something that only the elite ever exclusively did. Your Toulouse, your Saracens, your Leinster and so on. Not the little old unfashionable Chiefs, who only finally began to rub shoulders in top tier English rugby when promoted first the first time from the Championship in 2010. That particular ‘small beer achievement’ left the then 13-year-old Simmonds in awe, convincing the impressionable teen to grow up and become a professional rugby player with Exeter.

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“In the back of my mind, I knew that Exeter was big but I was from Teignmouth so I always supported my local club, but I started taking rugby proper serious and went to (first leg) final at Sandy Park when they came up from the Championship. Just being involved in that atmosphere, I thought this is exactly what I want to do. That was the moment for me, watching (Gareth) Steenson celebrate and stuff like that was a huge moment for me and that is what drove me to want that.”

It’s incredible to think that a little over ten years later, Simmonds was now the on-pitch orchestrator – not a wide-eyed teenager on the terraces – guiding Exeter around Ashton Gate and Twickenham and on to glory where he even had the honour of lifting the trophies with co-skipper Jack Yeandle. “I’d never really captained any side growing up, school, football, rugby, whatever,” he explained.

“To have the opportunity to captain the team in the Premiership and European final was huge. I’d grown up looking at it and watching Jonny Wilkinson lift trophies, watched Owen Farrell lift trophies. These are huge international players and I’m just Joe from Teignmouth that had the opportunity to win. I’d the likes of Sladey (Henry Slade), (Luke) Cowan-Dickie, (Jack) Nowell, (Stuart) Hogg, Jonny Gray who are established internationals in the same squad as me. Even just to take the pitch with those guys is good enough but to have the opportunity to lift the trophy with Jack Yeandle was something that just couldn’t be put into words, to be honest with you.

“You’d think it would be easy for me to talk about but it’s hard to put into words, it was that good. It was just a weird year to be involved with covid and no fans and not knowing if games were going to be played. For us the first few months in lockdown it was just making sure we were in the right physical and mental state to get back and play these big games. We all had one goal and that was to win trophies and the work done in lockdown and off the pitch was hugely rewarding on the pitch come knockout rugby time.”

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Simmonds has all the Exeter finals memorabilia to hand, which is good to hear given that the walls providing the backdrop to the room from where he was speaking to RugbyPass were starkly bare and very white. His jersey from his first Premiership game is on show in his kitchen downstairs and his October 2020 stash will eventually also feature prominently. “I’ve got the Europe and Premiership side by side in a few photos and the medals are in there. I need to put that up on the wall but I have got that all sorted in my gaming room as I call it.”

Those objects, though, don’t commemorate his favourite moment from that entire year, the European semi-final win over the powerhouse Toulouse. “That was huge,” he said, recalling the fabulously sunny Devon afternoon when the French aristocrats were ambushed and taken out of the reckoning. “They were probably the favourites to win the competition, they had such big, heavyweight players and (Antoine) Dupont was playing his best rugby.

“It helped us a little, I’d say. It took the pressure off us a little bit. Although we were playing at home, Toulouse were the favourites and to come off a game that was so hard – I have never been involved in Test rugby so I don’t know what it is like but the international boys said it was up there with the hardest games they had played – so to come out on top in a game like that was huge. As soon as we won that game I kind of knew in the back of my head we were going to be hard to stop come final time against Racing.”

Exeter Simmonds brothers
Joe and Sam Simmonds celebrate versus Toulouse (Photo by Simon Galloway/PA Images via Getty Images)

The real joy of winning the trophies in Bristol and London was the exuberant bus rides home, a 90-minute adventure the first Saturday followed by twice that duration the following weekend. “That was probably the only moment we could properly celebrate because as soon as we got home we were sent home because you couldn’t interact with people or be around over six people or whatever it was,” explained Simmonds, reflecting on the shackling circumstances of life in England at the time.

“We definitely made the most of it whether it was in the changing room having beers, drinking out of the cup or whatever. But yeah, as soon as we got on the bus it was just nice to have the music on. We had this cool bus, we’d the disco lights on and stuff like that. But there are no other stories other than that, just sharing a few good cold beers together.”

Those cold beers haven’t been as sweet since then. Simmonds even found himself benched for a spell earlier this season when Rob Baxter opted to give young Harvey Skinner a run in the Exeter team. “It probably hasn’t been the season I expected,” he candidly admitted. “I thought I was going to come off the back of winning a Prem final and come into the season raring to go.

“But the Prem final hit me hard. I have been in finals now where I have lost a few and won a few and losing is a bad feeling. I probably put too much pressure on myself coming into the start of the season and I wasn’t performing how I know I should be. I thought it was the right call for the coaches to bench me because I wasn’t performing, I wasn’t in the right headspace to lead the team and definitely having the experience of that has pushed me on. I never want to experience it again so making sure to perform week in week out is huge.”

What helped regain his mojo? “Just talking to people. I’m still the same bloke as I was winning the double the year before. I just think putting pressure on myself didn’t help me at all. I was trying too hard in games and just overthinking things too much and that doesn’t get me anywhere whereas now I just free myself up, I’m enjoying my rugby again and I’m in a good environment here at Exeter. I would say the enjoyment thing has definitely come back.

“Sometimes we probably put a bit too much pressure on ourselves and we probably expect things to happen. That is probably what led us to lose that Premiership final last year, that we turned up and we ourselves expected to win that but it’s down to the hard work, down to who can play the best rugby on the day and we just have to make sure we gave got the mindset to do that.”

After sitting back and watching this Friday night’s BT Sport premiere of Devon Double, Simmonds will go head-to-head on Sunday for Exeter against Leicester’s George Ford, one of the out-halves ahead of him in the England queue. First-time Test selection is something the 25-year-old Simmonds eagerly aspires to, his appetite further whetted by the long-awaited return this season of his brother Sam to the fold under Eddie Jones.

“Definitely. It is everyone’s dream to play for your country and it is definitely in the back of my mind but again I just have to be consistent, I have to perform and I have to be the best ten in the Premiership to be playing for England. If I can do that then I put my hand up for being chosen.

“You always want to play the best players and the in-form players and Ford is definitely one of those at the moment. He has had loads of England caps and for me, it’s just a good battle, I can see where I am as a player and it definitely spurs me on a little bit to make sure I perform – but I never read too much into it. I have got to make sure I’m consistent and perform well for Exeter and that we can get the win. It’s a fixture we have been looking forward to for a while.”

We’ll finish with the inevitable – his relationship with Sam, his older brother by two years and 39 days. “We were competitive because we just loved sport and looking back at it now it brought the best out of both of us. Our parents probably hated it because we were always fighting but to be involved in the same team as Sam and winning these trophies is something that is hugely proud for us both.

“Our parents talk a lot to us about it and tell us how proud they are but it’s probably something I will look back on after my career and feel we were lucky to be where we were. It helped with Sam being just two years older than me, we were always into football but then he choose the route of rugby and he was doing pretty well and in my mind, I didn’t want to be left behind. I knew he was getting a contract for Exeter and we were always pretty competitive anyway, but that pushed me on a bit more.

“It’s brilliant (to see him back with England). I might be a bit biased but for me, he has been in the in-form player for the last three years I would say. Week in week out he performs. I thought he wasn’t getting the praise he should have done but now he is slowly getting there and although the results haven’t gone well for England, I personally think he has been really good and I am definitely excited to get him back this weekend for Leicester.

“We’d love to do that [another double]. We have put ourselves in a good position to do that. We know we have to win every game in the Premiership and we are in the knockout stage in Europe. It’s a season we are all looking forward to finishing.”

QUICKFIRE SIMMONDS
Funniest moment on a rugby pitch: “Looking back at when I flinched and missed, didn’t have the opportunity to kick (the conversion) against Northampton. They just kicked the ball straight out and that was a funny moment when I look back at it a little bit.”

Silliest thing ever bought: “I didn’t buy it but I have got a new dog and my missus’ parents bought a ball gun that you just shoot. It’s a massive gun and you have to walk around shooting it. That is probably the silliest thing.”

What annoys you most: “These are hard questions. My brother. It’s different now to be fair but when we lived together, because we worked together and then went home together, it was just too much. And his face just annoys me.”

Most embarrassing moment: “Not many people know this but it was in a game, the semi-final against Sale last year. The time was up and I was about five metres away from touch and all I had to do was kick the ball out and I celebrated so hard that I kicked the ball so far in the air that it didn’t go out and they had about five more minutes of the ball. That was probably my most embarrassing moment. I got a lot of s**t for it.

Best present ever received: “I’d say my dog. It’s a little Blue Staffy. He’s a year now, a nutter. He keeps me on my toes.”

Guilty pleasure: “If you were to ask my strength and conditioning coach it would probably be chocolate and sweets. I’m into Haribo tangfastics and I like Kinder chocolate. That is my guilty pleasure. No, not the Kinder toy, more the adult version ones.”

  • Watch Rugby Stories, a new documentary series airing every Friday on BT Sport around the thirteen clubs in the 2021/22 Gallagher Premiership. The series continues with ‘Devon Double’ the story of Exeter, on Friday, March 24, at 10pm on BT Sport 2. For more information visit bt.com/sport

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