Rugby-England no, Lions yes as Gatland recognises Simmonds's quality

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FILE PHOTO: Premiership - Harlequins v Exeter Chiefs
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By Mitch Phillips

LONDON (Reuters) - An early contender for the most uplifting sporting story of the year is Sam Simmonds' selection for the British and Irish Lions after his international career had been frustratingly stymied by the blinkered vision of England coach Eddie Jones.

Not for the first time it is the Lions who have delivered a shot in the arm to rugby lovers as coach Warren Gatland prepared for the tour of South Africa by reminding the world that there is more than one way to skin a Springbok.

Everything seemed to be running smoothly for Simmonds when, after some eye-catching performances for upwardly-mobile Exeter, he was handed a 10-minute England test debut against Argentina in November 2017, a day after he turned 23 and a year after he had been operating in the second division for Cornish Pirates.

He scored two tries against Italy on his Six Nations debut the following year but, rather than being a springboard to establishing himself at the back of England's pack, that tournament proved the end of the line after four starts and three appearances off the bench.

Jones felt Simmonds was too lightweight for the back row balance he wanted, reverting to Billy Vunipola and others over the next three years.

Simmonds returned to doing his thing, which was running with speed and agility rarely seen in a forward as well as developing his nose for a try at the back of Exeter's famed rolling maul.

Then came another huge setback as he ruptured knee ligaments, effectively wiping out his 2018/19 season.

Simmonds returned bigger and stronger, but crucially just as fast, as he helped Exeter to a Premiership and European Cup double, being named European Player of the Year along the way. Jones remained unmoved.

LEADING TRYSCORER

Simmonds took that form into the current season where he is the league's leading tryscorer with 14, six more than anyone else, and has been making breaks like a centre.

However, still Jones refused to recall him, even to his extended training squads, despite Vunipola having a torrid time amid England's struggles.

While Jones is famed for making early decisions about players, and sticking to them regardless of the evidence, Gatland, preparing for his third Lions tour as head coach, has mastered the opposite approach.

He is constantly assessing form alongside reputation as he bids to blend a disparate group of players into a force to peak at just the right moment.

Simmonds was widely tipped for selection and, though it is still an unusual situation for a player in the international wilderness to join the Lions, Gatland had no concerns.

"Against South Africa you've got to have players in your forward pack who don't just put the ball under their arm and run hard and straight," Gatland told a news conference after naming his squad on Thursday.

"You need players with footwork and pace and Simmonds has that. It's not about just matching them physically - though you have to do that - you have to be able to bring some variation in your attacking options and Simmonds has the variation.

"He has pace and scores tries. I'm really excited about him getting that chance," added Gatland.

Simmonds faces a stiff challenge to dislodge Wales's Taulupe Faletau, the starting Number Eight in all three tests against New Zealand in 2017 and who also played against Australia four years earlier.

Simmonds's potential inclusion also depends on Gatland's preferred option at flanker, where he has great depth and variety but knows against the Springboks he needs a certain amount of heft.

Having been discarded for so long by Jones for just such a reason, however, Simmonds is not about to start worrying now his positive attributes have been so richly recognised.

(Reporting by Mitch Phillips; Editing by Ken Ferris)