Exeter boss Rob Baxter has opened up about the true level of his disappointment that in-form Sam Simmonds was overlooked by England boss Eddie Jones for the entire Guinness Six Nations campaign.
Baxter was diplomatic earlier in the campaign, telling RugbyPass in the wake of the opening round defeat for England by Scotland: “Whether his focus is to prove people right or to prove people wrong, whatever his driver is, it’s working very well for him because he is performing very well in some tough games for us.
“What it comes down to is how they perform at the weekend and what he has shown is that he is dealing with it exceptionally well.”
Six weeks later and with the 26-year-old Simmonds still without an England cap since a March 2018 appearance versus Ireland, Baxter was far more elaborative about the ongoing omission of the Exeter No8 from his country’s Test squad.
With Simmonds burning up the Gallagher Premiership try-scoring charts – his tally of 14 is six more than next-best Alex Dombrandt – there was a myriad of calls for him to get an England call-up, Lawrence Dallaglio being among those supporters most vocal in advancing the Exeter player’s credentials.
Sam Simmonds has scored 52 tries in 76 Test, Premiership and Champions Cup games compared to Billy Vunipola's 32 tries in 208…
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 13, 2021
However, this all fell on deaf ears as Jones stuck to what he had and started the inconsistent Billy Vunipola in all five England games at No8, favouritism that did the team few if any favours as Vunipola’s poor campaign was encapsulated by how Ireland’s CJ Stander easily sat him down with one second-half Aviva Stadium carry last Saturday.
With the Six Nations finished, the focus has now shifted to whether Simmonds can secure Lions selection despite not having featured for England this spring and his try-scoring performance some weeks ago for Exeter at Bath must surely count in his favour as Warren Gatland was present on that particular Saturday at The Rec.
Asked was he disappointed and surprised by how Jones ignored Simmonds for the entire England campaign, Baxter said: “I would say yes. Probably not initially because for obvious reasons the England team had had some success in the early season games and so there is no real argument at that stage for breaking that team up. That’s the truth, that’s professional sport.
“But potentially once it became obvious there were we some guys who were just lacking form, be it through lack of game time or whatever it was, I was a little surprised there weren’t some changes made,” continued Baxter at his weekly club media conference on Tuesday, three days after England’s Six Nations ended with a whimper in Dublin.
“Then again, and this is why we have got to all sit back and see the bigger picture, there were some pretty difficult decisions that had to be made around that 28-man Covid bubble that was agreed before the tournament started. It’s probably a really difficult scenario.
“When you break it down you had a group of players that had been successful together and you can’t say they hadn’t. Whatever anyone thought about the quality of rugby, they were winning games.
“Then we were in a scenario where it is relatively difficult to chop and change that squad as it would be too fluid and there was the scenario where some of your key players from the earlier games just hadn’t played any rugby for months.
“If there was going to be an error in the squad, the error was maybe not making an early realisation that some guys would just be off form through lack of rugby. But again, everybody can make those decisions and make those things in hindsight.
"A No8 with pace off the base of the scrum, getting over the gain line…"
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 6, 2021
“That is what they are, some of those form decisions. They are purely hindsight because they couldn’t have been made at the time as the players weren’t playing. It’s more of a complex question than quite simply that.
“For Sam, he is doing exactly what he needs to do. He is playing very, very well every week, he is scoring tries, he is doing what he is good at and fair play to him, he is doing it in front of the people who really matter. Up at Bath he had a very, very good game and who was stood in the grandstand? Warren Gatland.
“Warren Gatland is the guy who can pick Sam next for the international scenario. That is his next opportunity now. His next England opportunity will be a bit behind that, so he is doing the right thing, he is playing well for us in front of the right people.”
Rob Baxter didn't shy away from questions about Eddie Jones and England at his weekly media conference on Tuesday
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 23, 2021
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