Sam Simmonds faces an uphill battle to feature at the Rugby World Cup next year after being ruled out for between six and nine months with a major knee ligament injury.
The Exeter back-row ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament against Worcester last weekend and will be unavailable for England’s autumn and Six Nations campaigns.
Simmonds was not included in the most recent England training squad but he has been in excellent early season form for the Chiefs and offered a potentially attractive option off the bench for Eddie Jones, the national head coach. Now, barring a remarkably speedy recovery, the 23-year-old is coming to terms with the gloomy prospect that his season might be over already after just five rounds of Premiership action.
It is a significant blow for Exeter, who have frequently benefited from Simmonds’s acceleration and low‑slung power close to the line.
“If the operation and rehab goes really well we’d like to hope we can maybe see him before the end of the season but it’s going to be touch and go,” the Chiefs’ director of rugby, Rob Baxter, said. “It’s hard to absorb because Simmo has been a key momentum gainer for us. Obviously he is upset. He was looking forward to having a big season.”
The only possible upside, Baxter reckons, is that Simmonds should be back fit and raring to go in mid-summer if England’s pack require any 11th-hour reinforcements. “The other guys are going to be playing and are more likely to be picking up injuries than Sam,” Baxter said. “Two or three of them might go down yet. He may well find that, if he manages to get a big month in with us before the end of the season, he could look like the guy who is absolutely flying.”
Baxter, who has lost another of his England squad forwards, Jonny Hill, for up to four months with a finger ligament injury, is also confident that Simmonds will ultimately come back stronger. “Yes he’s going to miss some big games now, but you’d hope those big games can get added on to the end of his career because he’s not taking the battering now.”
Either way it is untimely news for an England coaching team still digesting the decision of Joe Marler to retire from international rugby to spend more time with his family. The Harlequins prop’s subsequent revelations about the mental stresses he endured in the lead‑up to England squad camps, meanwhile, have attracted some sympathy from his fellow players and coaches, with Leicester’s interim head coach, Geordan Murphy, and captain, Tom Youngs, both hoping Marler will be happier from his self‑imposed exile.
“If he is getting anxiety then I feel sorry for him,” Youngs said. “If this means he leads a healthier life then fair play to him. That is the most important thing. There is a lot of pressure leaving your family and going away for a long time.”
Murphy, though, stressed that no professional player should ever step on to the field with even the vaguest premeditated desire to pick up a ban. “You would be disappointed if one of our guys were deliberately trying to receive a card,” he said. “I think if guys are serious and in contention for selection they wouldn’t pull something like that.
“In my entire playing career I can only remember one comparable episode. We had a scrum-half who wanted to go back to Ireland for Christmas, we were playing against the Indian national team, the guy was sixth choice and the manager wouldn’t let him go. The guy picked up a mysterious injury, we won 145-0 and he managed to get his week off for Christmas.”
Meanwhile the Heineken Champions Cup final at Newcastle’s St James’ Park next May is on course to be a 52,300 sell-out, with fewer than 9,000 tickets remaining on public sale. The board of European Professional Club Rugby has also confirmed that the former England centre Simon Halliday will continue as its chairman for a further three years.