Sam Simmonds says that last summer’s British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa made him realize how much he missed international rugby.
Lions head coach Warren Gatland selected the Exeter number eight – Simmonds featured as a replacement in the third Test – for his squad despite being surplus to England requirements.
Simmonds had not represented his country since March 2018, yet Gatland saw enough in the 27-year-old’s immense club form to warrant a place on the plane.
Simmonds, European player of the year in 2020, has since returned to the England fold, doubling his caps tally to 14 by playing seven Tests this season.
“That (Lions tour) was the start of me really wanting to get back into the England fold,” Simmonds said, ahead of Exeter’s Heineken Champions Cup round of 16 first-leg clash against Munster on Saturday.
“It made me realize what I had been missing through injury or not being selected, so that spurred me on, and to get selected again was amazing.
“Over time, when I wasn’t getting selected, I just felt like there was something missing and I wanted to test myself again and be back playing at the highest level.
“I have enjoyed playing for England, I have enjoyed training, I’ve enjoyed testing myself at that level again.
“Maybe in the past, I was a little bit of rabbit in the headlights and didn’t maybe take the opportunity that was put in front of me and didn’t really express myself, whereas I feel like the Lions gave me the confidence to do that, and then that added into playing for England.”
Simmonds had starred in a 38-16 Exeter victory over Bath, watched by Gatland, before a call came from the Lions boss.
“Warren said he knew I was not playing international rugby at the time, but to keep doing what I was doing and I would definitely be considered,” he added.
“It was literally like a minute-and-a-half (conversation), but for me that was good.
“For whatever reason, I wasn’t being selected for England at the time, but I felt like I was in good shape, so it was nice to be able to still be recognized when you are not actually playing international rugby.”
Simmonds was one of England’s most consistent performers during a disappointing Guinness Six Nations campaign this term. Although they finished third, Eddie Jones’ team lost three games.
But attention now switches completely to the Chiefs, with Munster standing between them across home and away legs and a quarter-final place.
Exeter, European champions the season before last, remain in a Gallagher Premiership play-off position despite losing nine of their 21 league games.
“It has been hit and miss, hasn’t it?” Simmonds said. “It has been a disrupted season with results, and things haven’t gone our way in a lot of things.
“It has been exciting watching the boys perform while I have been away for the Six Nations to really push ourselves back into contention to secure a top-four spot.
“When I have played against Irish opposition in the past, they pretty much are Test matches.
“That is what you expect from Irish teams, and you expect that from knockout games, and we won’t be shying away from it. We will relish it.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.