'We created a system' - The former England No8 that helped mould Sam Simmonds
Exeter boss Rob Baxter has explained how their use of Thomas Waldrom as they built their way to a first-ever Premiership title in 2017 was important in the Chiefs so quickly placing their trust in 2021 Lions pick Sam Simmonds to go on and do the business as an unconventional No8 whose physique is very different from bulldozing rivals such as Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes.
Simmonds was certainly not a like-for-like replacement for the now-retired Kiwi who was capped for England while at Leicester prior to his 2014 switch to Exeter. However, the try-scoring qualities that Waldrom brought to the Sandy Park mix changed Baxter’s way of thinking about the make-up of a traditional back-rower combination.
Exeter’s usual first-choice trio these days is two bruisers at flanker in the guise of Dave Ewers and Jacques Vermeulen complemented the finesse of the lesser physiqued Simmonds, whose rich vein of form has forced him into the Lions squad despite not being picked by Eddie Jones’ England since March 2018.
Waldrom scored 41 tries in his 80 Premiership matches for Exeter during his four-year stay, but that scoring rate has gone further through the roof with how clinical Simmonds is.
He currently has 45 tries in 64 Premiership appearances and his efficiency this season – 16 tries in 17 outings – means he has taken the record for the number of tries scored by a forward in a single Premiership season and is just one try behind the highest tally by any player in a year, the 17 scored by Richmond’s Dominic Chapman in 1997/98 and matched by Christian Wade of Wasps in 2016/17.
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Baxter claimed that he knew from some of the footage he was getting of Simmonds in action with Cornish Pirates in the Championship that he had a talent Exeter could work very well with. “I can definitely see it in some of his performances at Cornish Pirates because we were getting all the videos and in the Championship he had a point of difference in pace and power. That really started to get us thinking about bringing him up here into those other games.
“He had a couple of standout performances in the LV= Cup and to be fair he was one of those guys who probably had to overcome a few hurdles along the way. We had a good pack of forwards playing well, very set-piece orientated and probably what helped him a little bit was Tom Waldrom being here.
“When we worked with Tom we wanted a back row that worked with that shorter, stockier, powerful, ball carrying kind of guy as a No8 and it complemented our pack, so once Sam started showing those kinds of qualities there was a way into the team for him. It wasn’t like we were replacing a 6ft 5 No8 with someone completely different and we were trying to shoehorn him in at No7 or whatever.
“There was a little bit of a natural progression there and he started to show those qualities and the minute he started showing them he started to become a really good option for us. He then very quickly in his early Premiership games had those moments when he just scorched through defences.
“He has added a good bulk and size and power that is very effective for us around set-piece, when he is on the ball at mauls, very good at pick and goes and he is a stop tackler. He doesn’t get the credit for the stop tackles he puts in and the line speed tackles he puts in and that aligned with that pace can create differences. It is all there really but it has been a growing package, a growing thing that he has had to work very hard to achieve.”
Asked to elaborate further on how Waldrom’s effectiveness at Exeter paved the way for Simmonds to so successfully take over the No8 club shirt and become a recent Lions pick, Baxter added: “It is two things. Having Tom there meant we created a system for a ball carrier to drop into so that helped him, but Sam understood that role.
“To be fair, Rob Hunter talks a lot with every player we have here as a forward, putting combinations together about understanding your role within a team as a pack of forwards. What we have got with Sam is he has got a deep understanding of his role but what happens is you have got seven other forwards in that pack who understand his role as well.
“Both of his tries last weekend, Dave Ewers was the guy latching and driving him over. Dave is a good ball carrier himself and he scored. But he also understands that if Sam is on the ball he can explode away and if he gets (support) on him and adds, that is what you are seeing – that group are progressing and growing and experiencing together, they work very well together.”
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Simmonds’ selection by the Lions provided Exeter with a huge reason to cheer when Warren Gatland unveiled his squad last week. Stuart Hogg, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Jonny Hill were other Chiefs chosen to go to South Africa, but there was disappointment for the likes of Henry Slade.
With so much focus now on the build-up to the Lions tour, Baxter has revealed what he collectively told his Exeter squad – including Simmonds – in the wake of the Gatland announcement. “We talked about it. The first thing we said after Lions selection was you have got two things to do here: if you are a Lion people are going to be watching to see how you perform because there is going to be a Lions watch every week, who are the standout Lions each week in the Premiership.
“I said to them I’m expecting you guys to stand up, I’m expecting you to fight for a Test place, you need to start showing those qualities now. Those guys who are disappointed not to be going, people might be looking at you even more because you can show how you deal with disappointment and frustration and show you are going to play better now and make it look like you are the guy who should be going.
“That will probably mean you are the guy that will get picked up next if anything happens and if a guy is outside of that you have got to remember we are a tight-knit bunch of players and we have talked about this a lot in the past, that you can succeed through each other. That counts both ways.
“Seeing some of those lads go on Lions tour should be something that the players who play with them are very proud of and can feel a part of that success that laid that platform but I’d like to think that should be reciprocated as well and those players who are going on Lions tours should want to play well because they should want to reciprocate that success with the players who are here and hopefully that will lead to a Premiership title. Everybody’s motivation should link together to create a powerful force.”
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