Sam Simmonds won’t lie. The past 30 weeks have been the most challenging of his life. There he was galloping into the 2018/19 Gallagher Premiership season full of high jinx after a fairytale rise from obscurity had seen him dramatically go from playing Championship for Cornish Pirates to making an England Test debut 11 months later.
Then came last September’s heartbreaking ruptured anterior cruciate ligament injury which he is still trying to come back from. He’s nearly there, he hopes, his desire to play some part in Exeter’s end-of-season challenge for the league title driving him on towards the finishing line.
Simmonds’ story in getting from there to here, though, these past seven months is a salutary tale of rugby’s harrowing brutality.
One minute the 24-year-old was feeling on top of the world, Mr Invincible with an appetising match schedule full of excellent possibilities stretching out in front of him. The next minute, however, he was devastatingly plunged into despair and facing a winter of discontent trying to fix a suddenly wonky knee. It was cruel.
“When I first signed for Exeter I ruptured my LCL, my lateral collateral ligament, and I was out for about six months, but unless I have completely forgotten what I did last time I’ve worked so much harder now than I did then,” Simmonds told RugbyPass.
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“It’s been mentally and physically very hard and it’s probably the hardest thing I have had to do as a rugby player and life in general as well because I watched the boys every week and want to be involved in that.
“It’s not just playing (you miss), it’s being out there training and just doing what you love, I guess. I haven’t been able to do that now for seven months, but I’m coming towards the end of it and I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
There was only darkness at the traumatic start of the journey. “It happened against Worcester on a Saturday and I was in for an operation on the Monday week. I was in the hospital until Tuesday night, I was in quite a bit of pain.
“I couldn’t go home too early and then I was in at the club on the Friday starting my rehab. I didn’t have much time at home, but to be honest that is what I needed. With a big injury like that you need to start (rehab) as quick as possible.
“I wasn’t lifting weights but I was getting the range back in my knee, getting the muscles firing so that there was the least amount of wastage possible. The first month and a bit was getting it moving and getting what little bits of muscle that were left to fire.
“Then the next three months after that I was pretty much in the gym every day lifting weights. That has been the process so far, and the last two months I have done a lot of running, I must have done a couple of hundred miles down on the pitch at Sandy Park. I have done some contact the last couple of weeks as well and it’s feeling good. It’s just about confidence now.
“I’ve said the days are long but the weeks are short. It does feel like when I’m in I’m in for a long time each day, but once it gets to Friday I’m like, ‘Well, that’s another week ticked off’.
“Looking back on it now it does feel like it was yesterday that it [the injury] happened, so it’s quite a nice feeling going through a long old process and it being very hard and now coming to the good bits, being able to play rugby again, being able to do what I love. I think it probably has gone quite quick.”
Thing is, Simmonds still have one nagging doubt to overcome despite the consensus that he will return as good as new it not better. Nothing can replicate the feeling of being tackled during a match and until that actually happens, he can’t mentally be fully recovered from what occurred last September, an injury he admits to having not yet watched back on video.
“I haven’t actually (seen it). That might be something to do to get my head around, but I think what might help me is just watching back some of my clips of the last couple of years and just showing myself that I can play rugby.
“I haven’t done it for the whole season, but it’s still there. It’s just more the confidence around the contact area, being tackled. I have done a lot of tackles now and it’s absolutely fine, but I haven’t actually been tackled and that might be something that I need to get over. The knee is feeling good and probably stronger than it was before, but I just need to get myself right.
“I’ll probably wear myself out a little bit (thinking about coming back), I’ll probably be too excited. I love carrying the ball, love having the ball in my hand, so to be able to almost have no fear and just run at someone or run around someone or just express how I love playing the game is going to be great,” said Simmonds, a Land Rover ambassador.
“I have missed that physical side to playing. You’re in the gym lifting weights but you’re not hitting things, you’re not being hit yourself and you’re not playing with your mates. Carrying the ball for the first time will be something that I have thought about for a while.”
Simmonds had been an England shining light during 2018. With Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes decommissioned, he slotted into the No8 shirt. However, his own injury means that contact with Eddie Jones has been at a premium.
“We spoke very early on in my rehab and he said to me, as hard as it was, to not look at it as a negative and try and use it as motivation to get back fit, to be stronger, to be better than I was before.
“We haven’t spoke since and it’s harder (for him). It’s not like he is a club coach and you see him every day. He has got to deal with the players he has got around him that are fit and until I’m fit and playing well again, it’s kind of hard for him to look towards me because I’m not any use to him at the moment.
“The main port of call for me is firstly get fit, secondly play well for Exeter and then if it [the World Cup] happens it happens. If it doesn’t, I’ve had a tough year and I have to be better come the 19/20 season.”
— Sam Simmonds (@samsimmonds_) May 31, 2017
One thing the lengthy lay-off has allowed Simmonds do is fully grasp the sudden upward curve his career experienced. “The season I had in 2017 was crazy and then the start of this season didn’t go to plan.
“It does give you a chance to sit down and reflect on how lucky I was and how well I did that season, and that just makes me want to do better again when I’m fit,” he said, going on to explain how Exeter were able to facilitate a player making a speedy leap from Championship to Test rugby.
He had debuted for Exeter as an 18-year-old in a November 2012 Anglo-Welsh Cup match, but needed toughening up with Championship stints at Plymouth and Cornish before he properly made the Premiership grade.
“Rob (Baxter) is a very good example of someone who looks and recruits from the Championship. It’s a good league and there are players that probably do go under the radar but what Rob said to me was if I could perform well and be the best player in the Championship, then he will look at me to play in the Premiership.
“Until then, you have got to be able to go to the likes of Nottingham and Rotherham as it was and play well. If you do then you get your opportunity with a Premiership side.”
When Simmonds does eventually get back in the Exeter harness he can deservedly raise a glass containing produce from the new venture that helped keep his mind occupied outside the gym. Along with some fellow Chiefs, they have worked with Sandford Orchards to launch Rib Tickler, a new cider raising funds for the Exeter Foundation and the Wooden Spoon Charity.
Rugby players by day, Apple pickers by night pic.twitter.com/xwa5ycjgnD
— ribticklercider (@ribticklercider) April 10, 2019
“That has kept my mind occupied and it has been a nice revelation really in not just being a rehabber. They are different things to life and there is a lot of life after rugby, so it’s kind of opened my eyes to the business side of things.
“We’ve pretty much gone through the whole process, picked the apples, pressed the apples, decided what percentage the cider is, what the name is, the branding… it has been good fun and it’s been nice to keep my mind occupied a little bit rather than going in every day (to the Chiefs) and moping around.
“Through the whole rehab process I feel like I have been positive, but the physios and conditioners would say different.”
WATCH: Part two of the RugbyPass Operation Jaypan documentary ahead of the 2019 World Cup
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