Exeter Chiefs made a winning start to their Premiership title defence in a hard-fought victory over Harlequins at the Twickenham Stoop as Sam Simmonds sent an emphatic reminder to Eddie Jones that he continues to knock on the door for national selection.
The No 8’s rise to prominence caught Jones’s eye early in his career, when the unavailability of Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes required Jones to put his faith in the then-unproven Exeter forward.
But fast-forward three and a half years and there is a genuine argument that he should be starting once again on merit. A hat-trick in Exeter’s season-opening 33-3 victory over Harlequins showed the very best of his and the team’s qualities, and proved once more that they will be the team to beat.
Simmond’s three tries added to a close-range score from flanker Dave Ewers early in the second half as Exeter secured the bonus point in the closing stages, before replacement scrum-half Stu Townsend sniped over from close range with the final play of the game to seal the victory. Just 27 days after regaining the Premiership title, Exeter were once again sitting top of the table.
There is very little in Simmonds’s game to justify why he has not been recalled into the international set-up, and on this evidence, the recently-crowned European Player of the Season plans on picking up where he left off last month.
Whether Eddie Jones liked what he saw from the Exeter No 8 or not remains a mystery, but with the England head coach watching from the warmth of the national team hotel just two miles away, it proved hard to ignore just how influential the 26-year-old was on the contest.
As is so often the case with the Exeter Chiefs, the key to their success is having two Simmonds, not one. Where Sam led, younger brother Joe followed, pulling the strings with ease to keep the reigning English and European champions on the front foot.
Exeter immediately looked the brighter side with their slick offloading in contact producing quick yards,yet it was Harlequins who spurned the first chance to score four minutes in as Marcus Smith sliced his penalty right of the uprights following an Alec Hepburn scrum infringement. The fly-half made up for his error nine minutes later, punishing Sam Simmonds for not releasing the ball as he attempted to roll his way out of contact on the deck.
But that did not dampen his impact on the game - quite the opposite in fact as he quickly rose to the fore.
Exeter were able to enjoy the share of the possession and territory, and when Quins made a rare appearance in the Chiefs 22 with a deep kick to touch from Smith, they immediately conceded a lineout infringement that let the champions off the hook - a familiar occurrence whenever the home side threatened.
The penalty allowed Joe Simmonds to kick to the Harlequins 10m, where Exeter caught Harlequins napping. With Jack Yeandle starting at hooker as England’s Luke Cowan-Dickie is eased back in following minor knee surgery, the Exeter stalwart snuck the lineout quickly to Harry Williams, who popped it off to Jack Maunder before Quins were alive to the threat. With a back line rushing up at them, the defence was caught outnumbered and quick passing from Ollie Devoto and Joe Simmonds released brother Sam. The No 8 scythed his way through a gap between Andre Esterhuizen and Luke Northmore, and stepped back to his left to beat wing Nathan Earle with ease to score from halfway. With his brother adding the conversion, Exeter had a slender 7-3 lead that they would hold through to the break.
It did not take long after the restart for the lead to grow, with Ewers scoring a more conventional Exeter try. With a penalty sent to touch just short of the Harlequins five-metre line, the home side’s maul defence went missing to allow Ewers to take the lineout and charge through without facing any real resistance.
Joe Simmonds this time missed the conversion to leave Harlequins hope of a fightback, and it very nearly came immediately. Smith and Alex Dombrandt combined perfectly to allow the latter to collect a delicate chip over the defensive line, and the powerful forward immediately hacked on again for himself and Danny Care to chase. Tom O’Flaherty was able to gather first but the defence trapped Exeter in their 22, and turnover ball allowed Harlequins to attack. With Exeter scrambling, Care put centre Luke Northmore through to score, but the gap was only there as Dombrandt had charged through in front of him and referee Christophe Ridley correctly ruled it out for crossing.
Harlequins had grown into the contest though with a series of penalty in a row and the way they went hammer and tongs at the Chiefs, something was going to give. It took an excellent tap-tackle from Scott Baldwin to prevent an Exeter try after Ian Whitten broke through Smith’s attempted tackle with O’Flaherty outside him.
But the pressure started to shift back onto the hosts. Care conceded a penalty for taking out the scrum-half before captain Stephen Lewies did likewise by catching O’Flaherty high, but it proved third time lucky as a scrum infringement from replacement Jordan Els gave Exeter the five-metre lineout for Sam Simmonds to score his second. With just five minutes left on the clock, the Exeter pack delivered the same again to gift Simmonds his hat-trick to seal a hard-fought bonus points, and having done the eye-catching stuff early on, Simmonds proved he can do it ugly too.
Harlequins: Mike Brown; Nathan Earle (Tyrone Green, 55), Luke Northmore (Ben Tapuai, 68), Andre Esterhuizen, Cadan Murley; Marcus Smith, Danny Care; Santiago Garcia Botta (Jordan Els, 47), Scott Baldwin, Wilco Louw (Simon Kerrod, 47); Matt Symons (Glen Young, 15), Stephan Lewies; Tom Lawday (Archie White, 63), Will Evans, Alex Bombrandt.
Replacements not used: Jack Musk, Jack Stafford.
Exeter: Facundo Cordero (Tom Henrickson, 52); Tom O’Flaherty, Ian Whitten, Ollie Devoto (Harvey Skinner, 73), Olly Woodburn; Joe Simmonds, Jack Maunder (Stu Townsend, 61); Alec Hepburn (Ben Moon, 55), Jack Yeandle (Luke Cowan-Dickie, 58), Harry Williams (Marcus Street, 63); Will Witty (Tom Price, 70), Don Armand; Dave Ewers (Richard Capstick, 76), Jannes Kirsten, Sam Simmonds.
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