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Why 'split jury' last weekend has Exeter pleased with Sam Simmonds

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Bob Bradford/CameraSport via Getty Images)

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Exeter boss Rob Baxter has backed the winter form of Sam Simmonds – even though the No8 isn’t enjoying a repeat of the record-breaking try-scoring run that earned him selection for the 2021 Lions tour to South Africa and levered him back into the England squad. The 27-year-old scored a whopping 21 tries in 23 Gallagher Premiership appearances last season.  

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That extraordinary strike rate generated giddy media headlines demanding that the back-rower be recalled to an England set-up where he had last been capped in March 2018. Before Eddie Jones took a shine to him, though, Warren Gatland wanted a piece of the action, selecting Simmonds to tour South Africa and introducing him as a third Test replacement versus the Springboks. 

It was only November when Simmonds finally bridged the yawning gap back to his last match with England, the forward getting chosen as a replacement in the wins over Australia and South Africa. 

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In the meantime, Simmonds has scored four tries in eight Premiership outings with Exeter and while that strike rate is down on what he produced in the league last year and the man of the match awards have become less frequent, Chiefs boss Baxter has claimed his player is actually more influential in numerous other areas of his game this season than he was when creating last season’s try-scoring headlines.  

Asked by RugbyPass to rate how Simmonds has been performing now that the headlines that accompanied him all last season are not as frequent, Baxter said: “It has been tough, it has been a challenge but challenging seasons are often the season that makes you the best player you can be,” he reasoned. 

“Last season we played as a team and the way the games went, the last couple of seasons we have had a very focused, available group of players that have given platforms for Sam. Sam is always the first guy to say he has had a great platform to work from, which led to a lot of tries and the tries themselves it’s actually the scoring of the tries that have led to a lot of the headlines. 

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“In a lot of ways, this season he has actually had more influence for us in a lot of ways but because the outcome hasn’t been the number of tries but we haven’t scored the number of tries that we traditionally do so because the outcome hasn’t been tries he has been getting the headlines. 

“I actually thought he had a very good game last week against Harlequins. He probably had more influence on the game than Alex Dombrandt did if you actually break the game down. If you consider we played the second half with 14 men, the ground he had to cover and the work he had to get through in other elements, so I don’t think anyone could say he has not performed. 

“The guy who had been getting the headlines – and rightly so – was Alex Dombrandt but if you watched the game last week, the jury would be split over who had the more influential game. That probably shows you where he is.”

Is Simmonds aware that he is wielding this greater influence in other parts of his game as it is happening on the field of play or is it something that has to be pointed out to the player when Exeter do their post-game video review? “I think he is (aware of it). He is someone who is trying to progress all areas of his game beyond just try-scoring. 

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“He isn’t someone who comes off and thinks he has had a bad game if he hasn’t scored a try because he is intelligent enough to know the game breaks in a certain way, so there is going to be certain opportunities that was can create around what he does. 

“At the moment we have not been creating enough opportunities for him for some elements of his game, but that doesn’t mean he has not been getting on with the other parts. There is a lot of good stuff he is doing and I haven’t got any qualms at all about the quality of his play or the form he is in because he is going along very well.”

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