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‘Omission from England squad for Six Nations would be disappointing – I’m definitely ready’

What happens when a bandwagon moves on, when the media clamour dies down, and a different player becomes flavour of the month? In the case of Sam Simmonds, recalled by England this season after more than three years out of the international picture, the urge to succeed has only grown stronger.

“Some people just got hung up on the narrative that ‘oh, he’s playing well for Exeter, Eddie Jones must have a problem with him’,” Simmonds tells i of the time he spent winning trophies and breaking records with Exeter, yet went unwanted by the national coach.

“But you look at the back row they picked – Courtney Lawes, Billy [Vunipola] and Tom Curry – and it’s not as simple as ‘you’re playing well, you should be playing for England’. I knew within myself I was playing well, I was loving playing for Exeter.

“But the players England had there were world-class. I am not saying I didn’t feel like I should have been involved. But it never really upset me, I never got bogged down in it.

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“It’s more so now, when I’ve had a taste of being back involved, I would be disappointed to be left out for the Six Nations. It would be more of a down point than when a lot of people were talking about me.”

Simmonds is speaking from his home just outside Exeter, ahead of what he describes as Exeter’s “must win” European Cup match with Glasgow on Saturday, while cradling his baby daughter in his arms. Billie’s arrival at the start of October lent her 26-year-old dad a new perspective, and maybe helps explain Simmonds’ measured analysis, that includes an admission of what he needed to change when he finally returned to the England fold for November’s autumn internationals, albeit playing just 12 minutes across two substitute appearances in the wins over Australia and South Africa.

“It was a change in mindset to love training, which would then give me the best chance to get selected,” says Simmonds. “I love playing rugby – for Exeter, from when I was at Plymouth, and for Brixham and Cornish Pirates. And training was always on the back burner, it was ‘oh yeah, you have to train because it leads up to the game’.

“But training at England is tough and you have to prepare daily to allow yourself to perform. Eddie likes a team that trains at such good intensity throughout the week that when you get to the game, it’s giving you the best opportunity to perform. Before, maybe, when I was first involved, I didn’t understand.”

If Simmonds does keep his place in Jones’s Six Nations squad, to be named on Tuesday, it would be his first taste of the tournament since 2018. And the context has altered from when the No.8 with the foot speed and mobility of a very quick centre was helping Exeter win the league-and-European double in 2020, and scoring a Premiership record 21 tries in the 2020-21 season, at the end of which Simmonds was voted the competition’s player of the year and toured with the British & Irish Lions – an experience he rates as “nine out of 10” for enjoyment, sullied only by the lack of spectators.

“It’s right to say I wasn’t quite ready when I first played for England, but I definitely feel ready now,” Simmonds says. “I have grown into the player I am, changed a few things, and just had time in the saddle, putting 100 games together for Exeter, and getting back to where I was before a tough injury [a knee reconstruction later in 2018].”

Curry of Sale was England’s starting No.8 in the autumn, with Simmonds and another No.8 in Harlequins’ Alex Dombrandt on the bench, and the bulkier Vunipola dropped. And Jones has spoken of winning teams gaining more metres with running than with kicks, thanks to quicker ruck ball.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed to not have more game time, more impact on the games in the autumn,” says Simmonds. “But to be able to actually get on the pitch again was amazing. With ‘Dommers’ we are similar positions but very different in how we play, I learnt off him and just enjoyed being in that environment.

“Eddie said there were five campaigns to go before the World Cup, including the autumn. I assume they want a core squad to maybe bond and get boys used to training and playing together as much as they can.”

Meanwhile Exeter’s results are up and down, including losing to Glasgow 22-7 in the reverse European fixture. But Simmonds says he saw welcome signs of the Chiefs’ rediscovering their desire and drive in defence and the maul and kick-chase and carrying during last week’s two-point loss at Harlequins.

“Around the start of the season we were hung up on last year’s results. The Premiership final loss was hard to take. We looked too far ahead, too early. I feel we are back now to just focussing on the next week and not worrying about who we could potentially play in a semi-final or a final. It is something we have talked about – that this season could be a very special season, with how we go about the second half of it.”

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