Sometimes it is easy to forget the giant steps Exeter and Sam Simmonds have taken in a relatively short time. As recently as April 2016 the wide-eyed Chiefs had never contested a Premiership semi-final and Simmonds was on loan at Cornish Pirates. On the eve of the club’s sixth consecutive Twickenham finale, with Simmonds poised to tour with the British & Irish Lions, their extraordinary collective ascent is not over yet.
Of course, it is conceivable Harlequins will confound everyone and replicate their semi-final heroics against Bristol. Even if they can muster the energy, though, the London side will still need something seriously special. Their West Country rivals are eyeing a third major trophy in nine months and a third domestic title inside six seasons, while the 26-year-old Simmonds has already broken the league’s all-time try-scoring record and scooped every player of the year prize on offer.
The last time the Exeter No 8 travelled to London to play Quins, across the road at the Stoop, he scored a hat-trick of tries in a 33-3 victory, including a sensational solo effort that any winger would have coveted. Last month, at London Irish, there were trebles all round once more. The previously shy local lad from Teignmouth now seems to treat the once-alien big city as a home away from home.
And why not? Last year he was voted European Player of the Year and on Sunday evening he will fly to South Africa as a potentially vital member of Warren Gatland’s Lions party. Is there a more explosive back-rower off the base in world rugby now? Combined with his impressive low-slung close-quarters power and a poacher’s instinct that has yielded 51 tries in 70 Premiership appearances, his omission from England’s squad looks odder by the day.
In Exeter, naturally, they are still keen to keep his feet on the ground. “He gets all the glory, doesn’t he? Just for scoring a couple of tries from two metres out!” jokes his brother Joe, the Exeter captain hoping for an England call-up himself on Monday. Even sibling teasing, though, soon switches to respect. “Fair play to him, to score 20 tries in a season is pretty crazy. He’s been brilliant, both personally and for the team. It’s a credit to how hard he’s worked in the last couple of years and he’s now reaping the rewards.”
The family firm of Simmonds & Simmonds, whose father, David, and uncle, Rob, are in the crab and lobster fishing business, now eagerly await a final joust with Marcus Smith and Alex Dombrandt, their direct rivals and central to Quins’ renaissance. Sam reckons fraternal pride adds an extra 5% to his big-match performances – “to be able to run out together in semi-finals and finals with our family there just adds to the emotion” – while Joe says the pair’s in-house rivalry spurs them both on. “If he’s not doing something I’m not scared to tell him and vice versa. That’s how we grow as players: we’re not scared to get into each other.”
What increasingly defines the red-haired Simmonds and Exeter, though, is their white-hot competitive desire. While their supporters mostly recall the victorious Premiership finals against Wasps in 2017 and last year, the players learned more from the painful defeats by Saracens in 2016, 2018 and 2019. “The motivation – not just for me but for the team, the coaches and everyone here – is to get another trophy,” says their Lion in waiting. “As much as it’s great for both teams to get to a final you only remember the winners. We’ve been there before and lost and it hurts.
“Last year we used that hurt and the lessons of the past to put things right. This time we just want to win, to show everyone what this squad’s about. There has been a lot of talk about other teams and whether Exeter have been as good as last year. We want to show people that we are.”
His director of rugby, Rob Baxter, not only recognises that extra dressing-room edge – “I think it’s a huge driver for them to prove they’re worthy champions this season” – but suggests Simmonds’s individual heroics have galvanised everyone around him. “I think that’s what drags a team on year after year. If we want to get to repeat finals, it’s about players stepping up and making that happen. If you go back over the six years we’ve been getting to finals you’ll be able to remember players who have been inspirational in each of those years.”
The Chiefs will also be focused on recognising the moments when critical momentum can be gained and lost. Good as they were at times in their semi-final, the defending champions’ inaccuracy at restarts will offer Quins some encouragement. “If we allow them to play the way they want to play, they’re very dangerous,” says Simmonds. “They love broken field, little chips and off-the-cuff offloads. We can’t get swept up into that type of game. We want to be physical, we want to have control in all areas. It’s not about allowing it to be a spectacle or a show for the fans, because that’s not how Exeter Chiefs win.”
Hardly a PT Barnum-style promotional pitch, but anyone who has seen Simmonds carry the ball these past two years knows the fizzing energy and excitement he can bring. Baxter reckons all four of the club’s Lions tourists will go well in South Africa, not least because of weekends such as this. “I’m sure they’ll all be fantastic for the Lions, I’ve no doubt about that. There’s nothing they need to be concerned about. If anything this is the best preparation they can get. They can have a rest after the Lions. They don’t need it now, they’re flying.”
Already this week a pumped-up Luke Cowan-Dickie has been roaming the corridors of Sandy Park, growling at everyone in earshot to “go out there and win a trophy”. The prolific Simmonds sounds equally motivated as Exeter approach their latest date with title destiny. “We have been on the end of wins and losses and the wins definitely feel better. The feeling after the final whistle last year against Wasps … it was a horrible day, horrible rain, and probably not the best game to watch but we won. We want to feel that feeling again.”