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Joe Simmonds: 'I'd so much going on in my head; I just worried'

By Liam Heagney
Pau No10 Joe Simmonds (Photo by Gaizka Iroz/AFP via Getty Images)

It has been quite the rejuvenating first half-year for Joe Simmonds in France, his switch to unfancied Pau being just the tonic he needed after his career stalled down an Exeter cul de sac. When he co-captained the Chiefs to their league and European double in October 2020, the rugby world was at his feet.


The expectation was that the then 23-year-old would go on and get capped by England, such was the media fuss made about the out-half at that time. Instead, he never made it under Eddie Jones and his club fortunes ultimately dipped, Rob Baxter either playing him at full-back or consigning him to the bench.

Simmonds could have stayed at Sandy Park but the wholesale break-up of the double-winning team and the decision by older brother Sam to seek out a fresh challenge at Montpellier piqued Joe’s interest and he too joined the exodus, believing a two-year deal in the Top 14 would be the balm to soothe brittle confidence.

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Sam Warburton discusses the Champions Cup format

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Sam Warburton discusses the Champions Cup format

So far, so good. When RugbyPass caught up with Simmonds across the Channel on December 20, the day after his 27th birthday, he had just overcome a brief illness and was preparing to host a pile of family for that weekend’s home win over Clermont and the Christmas celebrations that were to follow.

“My mum and my stepdad’s sister are coming, I’ve got two nans heading over as well for the first time; it will be good to have them over here. I’ll hopefully be able to show them around. I’m still learning my ways, locations and stuff, but it will be nice to have family here for sure.”

Sam had his own Christmas plans more than 400kms away on the coast. “I have been down to Montpellier. He hasn’t come up yet. He’s being a bit lazy, which is classic older brother. Over Christmas he is doing his own thing, he has a little daughter now. They are going to enjoy Christmas together but we play them on January 27. My family are going to come out for that game and hopefully we’ll see each other then.”

Pau have won just one game in five on the road in the French league but their home form is excellent, with Simmonds instrumental in six successive Stade de Hameau wins before Saturday afternoon’s 20-29 loss to La Rochelle.


All the while, he has been a constant positive in the No10 jersey and such is his rediscovered accuracy off the tee, he is this season’s Top 14 leading points scorer – further evidence of his sweetness and light just months after exiting Devon for an altogether different challenge at a club he initially knew little or nothing about.

“Before signing, I didn’t know anything about it myself. Only speaking to a few of the foreigners about it. But since being here, it’s a crazy old city to be fair. They love their rugby. The fans are brilliant and every home game I have played has pretty much been sold out.

“The atmospheres have been pretty crazy and in terms of location as well, it’s pretty good. It’s an hour from Biarritz, which in the summer is brilliant for experiencing the beach, the sea and stuff but it’s also an hour from the mountains and so at the moment there is a lot of snow and it’s good to explore that side of things as well.

“I wouldn’t have known too much about it but it seems to be in a good location and so far I’m loving it, it’s really good. The bakeries here are brilliant, the different experiences that come with it.


“When I was in England, on a day off I would drive one or two hours but over here in France the roads are very easy, so you can get to places easy enough. On my days off, on Sundays and Thursdays, I try and travel as much as I can to look at places around Pau.”

Why settle in this Pyrenees city, though? “It was a tough decision. At the time I just felt like I needed the change. A change wasn’t going to be signing for another English team and staying in England. I really needed to get out of my comfort zone and experience something else.

“Having the likes of Dan Robson and Steve Cummins whom I spoke to before, telling me how positive it is here and how they think the rugby can improve and the players can get better, really helped my decision to come over.

“I’ve just got the girlfriend and my dog, and also my brother coming out here, I knew he was coming to France, it maybe made that decision a little bit easier. We played together for eight years at Exeter and it just felt like the right time with him leaving as well to experience something. We are only four hours away from each other here so it’s quite nice to visit him when I can.”

That’s the general assessment about the Simmonds switch but let’s drill down a bit further – how does a player who had so much going for him as a double-winning skipper start to doubt himself and lose his way?

“With my time at Exeter, I loved every minute of it but I ended up slowly doubting myself. I probably wasn’t performing as well as I could do at Exeter, I was so doubting myself that I wasn’t an influence as a rugby player.

“A reason why I came here, looking at the results in the past year, Pau were a team that struggled and have been at the bottom. I felt coming to Pau, not many people know about it, I felt like I could put my game forward and hopefully the confidence would come back out of me. So far it seems to be working.

“It helps that this move is a completely different change for me and my family. I’m from Exeter and I’m always going to move back there but I just felt – nothing to do with Exeter, nothing to do with players – I was putting pressure on myself.

“I probably got too comfortable with things that I have done, things that I have achieved. I just wasn’t performing well on the pitch. I know that myself. I’m open about it all, so when this opportunity came about it was the right time. I turned 27 yesterday so I’m still fairly young and I just want to keep enjoying my rugby, hopefully keep getting better and hopefully help this team achieve things.

“I’m a guy that is quite a big worrier, I let things stick in my mind too much and the last two or three years at Exeter, that probably let me down a little bit. It’s no one’s fault, it’s my fault and I just couldn’t get out of that.

“Two years ago, I would have looked at myself and said, ‘I’m never ever leaving Exeter, I have got it all here, I’m from Exeter, it’s all easy for me’. But I want my rugby to improve, so I felt for myself and my headspace I just needed it [the move away].”

Why are Pau getting the best from Simmonds, particularly as his French vocabulary isn’t yet as fluent as he wants? “It’s been hard because of the language barrier; I didn’t really do any French growing up. I’m doing lessons now. It has been hard in terms of that but when it comes to rugby, it’s all very similar to the way they do it in England. I understand it all.

“They have got a pretty simple game plan here at Pau, so I have been able to adapt pretty quickly and fall into place well… I just take it day by day, but the results have been good and I feel confident in the way I’m playing, but also the coaches here just let me play; I can do my own thing, which is good. If they can keep having confidence in me and I can keep playing on Saturdays, things will just get better and better.

“Pau have never played Champions Cup rugby and leaving Exeter, that is something I love playing in so that is definitely a goal; I want this team to get Champions Cup rugby next season. I know it’s early days, but I also feel like we can get top six and that playoff spot. We have just got to make sure we keep getting results, keep turning up on game day.

“Coming here I didn’t have a clue what this team was going to be like, didn’t have a clue how they played rugby, but being involved now I feel this team can get better and better. They have got a lot of good, young individuals and with winning, it’s like a roller coaster – if you keep winning, training gets better, and everyone becomes more confident. Champions Cup rugby and the top six would be brilliant.

“Experiencing the different stadiums week in, week out, experiencing the fans, it’s just crazy,” he added. “It’s getting bigger and bigger here, they love their rugby and just being involved has been brilliant. I played at stadiums, Montpellier and stuff like that (with Exeter), but I never experienced Perpignan, Bayonne away. Things like that are brilliant experiences I have enjoyed so far and hopefully they keep coming.”

Pau’s pedigree ratcheted up in recent weeks with the arrival of legendary All Blacks second row Sam Whitelock. “It’s been pretty crazy. We trained here at the stadium today, he brings in crowds. They just come and watch training, and I never realised how big he was until meeting him.

“He has been brilliant, has fitted in well, is getting up with things like the lineout and the way we play, but I can tell in training and the way he talks that he is going to be a huge influence.

“Hopefully we can keep getting results and keep attracting players like him because I feel we have got a good group here. If we keep winning our home games and a fair few of our away, we will attract more people like Sam to come here and play.”

The 35-year-old Whitelock signed off in October on his 153-cap Test career to stay on in France after the Rugby World Cup. International rugby was something Simmonds was once hotly touted for, but it never materialised and he is now ineligible for England selection following his club game switch to the Top 14.

Looking back on the hype, he said: “It’s probably the worst thing that did happen to me to be fair. Winning those trophies was brilliant, I loved every part of it and loved captaining the side but what comes with it is a lot of media stuff, people saying you should be in, people saying you are not, sometimes expecting you might get a call and for me, I had so much going on in my head.

“For any youngster growing up, you want to play for England. My goal was to play for England but as time went on I probably dwelled on it too much when not getting picked. These past few years I just worried about things and put too much pressure on myself.

“Now I’m 27, who knows how I am going to be in the next few years. I just wanted to come out here and just love rugby again and I feel like I am doing that. I have been here four, five months now and I’m really enjoying my rugby. That is just because I made my decision to come out here.

“But who knows in the future. My goal is I would love to play for England and obviously I have got to be in England to play. But for now, my job is to keep improving here and helping the team win games.

“It’s the best league in the world with the players that are here and I just wanted to get here as quick as I could, but in terms of English rugby I always want English rugby to do well and seeing a lot of internationals wanting to move over, it’s quite hard for English rugby but it shows what a good thing French rugby is at the moment and how well they are doing.”

That relish is quite the change for Simmonds given now things sombrely finished up at Exeter. “Growing up, all you want to do is play week in, week out in your preferred position. It came to the point, which was good, where me and Harvey (Skinner) were training well, and it made everything else better.

“It was just my own thoughts; when I had the chance to play, my performance wasn’t good enough. But there is always a positive for me, the good and the bad things have pushed me to where I am now so I wouldn’t change a thing to be fair.

“I still have a lot of friends there at Exeter and they seem to be doing very well. A young side but they have been brilliant to watch this year. They’re flying. It’s nice to see them going well because I loved my time there. I was there for eight years, and I don’t have a bad word to say about them. I love watching them and they are doing a great job at the moment.”


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