There are plenty of reasons why Sam Simmonds will soon be ruling himself out of contention for England, having fought for so long to convince Eddie Jones he was worth another shot, but the No 8 has wanderlust.
The financial benefits of a move to Montpellier next season are obvious, particularly at a time when the salary cap makes it harder for clubs to justify giving big contracts to England internationals. Simmonds has a young family and his determination to provide for them is a theme to which he frequently returns – even if his partner’s mother took a while to come around to the idea of the move to the south of France. The demises of Wasps and Worcester only heighten the sense of uncertainty as to what the future holds.
Above all else, however, Simmonds wants to see the world. He describes himself as a Devon boy, and his family – his farmer and uncle are in the lobster and crab business – as “Teignmouth born and bred”. After much deliberation, consultation with Exeter’s Rob Baxter and the England coach, Jones, and confirmation that he would still be eligible for next year’s World Cup – he has two start dates with Montpellier depending on whether he is selected – Simmonds’ mind was made up.
“Me and my brother [Joe] have been lucky enough to play for Exeter for 10 years,” Simmonds tells the Observer. “But we never went to uni, we’ve never really flown the nest. My family were surprised but they probably saw something like that coming in the next few years. Even if I was to sign for another Premiership club, it’s still not Exeter, it’s not Devon.
“I think they took it pretty well – my partner’s mum not so much but she understands and she quickly got over it. They are hard decisions, it’s not just me and my life out there. When you’re off contract or coming off contract you’re always weighing up options and things that you want to do because ultimately I’ve got people who depend on me now: a wife-to-be [Emily] next May and a little girl [Billie] as well.”
Simmonds has been back in the England fold for a year, earning a recall last autumn after Warren Gatland took him on the 2021 British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa. The 27-year-old insists he never wallowed during his England exile; indeed, those three and half years between caps were some of his most enjoyable, such was Exeter’s success and Simmonds’ unerring ability to find the tryline.
By his own admission, Simmonds was not ready for international rugby when his near-vertical ascent went from playing for Cornish Pirates in the Championship to making his England debut within the space of 12 months five years ago. The raw talent was abundantly clear but he has since matured as a player who no longer relies solely on his speed and as a person who now embraces mixing with international teammates brought together from different parts of the country. It probably helps that Jones no longer asks him how much he weighs at the start of each cap but Simmonds seems more at ease with the fact that while he and, say, Billy Vunipola are both ultimately trying to achieve the same goal, they will go about doing so in different ways.
“I probably didn’t immerse myself into the whole environment then but I’ve completely changed my outlook,” he says. “I was always very quick and explosive, I feel like I still have that off the mark explosiveness which is my point of difference. I think I’ve added to my game, I’ve got a bit bigger. I’ve added things that I probably didn’t have when I was coming through, I can punch up the middle a bit better rather than just being an out-wide ball carrier.”
Simmonds missed last summer’s tour of Australia after deciding it was the right time to have surgery on a longstanding hip injury but before that he was England’s starting No 8 by the end of the Six Nations. Still, there was relief when Jones picked him this season, suggesting that his move abroad would not be held against him. He is among the replacements for England’s autumn opener against Argentina on Sunday and will be a valuable weapon in the latter stages.
“It did feel good to be selected,” says Simmonds. “I wouldn’t and couldn’t have been annoyed if I had been left out because of my decision to leave England. But I don’t think Eddie has a problem with that. I spoke to him in depth and said my focus is to still play for England. I know that after the World Cup I won’t get the opportunity to do that again but I have come to terms with that and understood that. I was out of the loop for a long time previously so I know how it goes. I have been making a conscious effort to just take two seconds to just enjoy it all.”
That goes for domestic level too. Although Simmonds does not leave Exeter until the end of the season, he expects his remaining time with Joe in the south-west to fly by. “[Joe] was always in the loop but it’s going to be tough not to play with him,” he says.
“It’s amazing playing with teammates and your best mates but it is different to be able to run on to the pitch as siblings. You just have so much more love and emotion, especially for big games, it just means more. [Our last game together] will be an emotional day for the Simmonds household. I doubt my dad will be able to come to the game because he’ll be crying all day.”