It only lasted six minutes, but Sam Simmonds’ return to the England side last Saturday was a moment to celebrate.
As the Exeter No 8 was the last to leave Eddie Jones’ bench against Australia, he received a rapturous reception at Twickenham.
Having spent three years in Devon winning trophies, breaking records but watching England play without him he might have thought seven caps would be his lot — especially when Jones dropped him for the Tonga game earlier this autumn.
Sam Simmonds’ (second right) return to the England side last week was a moment to celebrate
But back briefly against the Wallabies he took his chance; pouncing on a loose ball in the final play to race down the left wing and release Jamie Blamire for England’s second try.
One touch, one assist — Simmonds finally put his non-selection saga to bed and exploded into life with England.
‘When I came back from the Lions it just made me realise that the whole England thing is what I want — to be back involved,’ Simmonds tells Sportsmail.
‘I’ve always wanted it, but it clicked in my mind that this environment is tough but that is where you get all the rewards.
Simmonds has been in prolific try-scoring form for the Exeter Chiefs since his last England cap
‘That’s where I want to be, playing with and against the best players in the world. It made me realise that I can get selected. I have been picked for the Lions, so why can’t I for England? It made me want it a little bit more.’
It has been so long since he was last involved, Simmonds has seen this autumn as starting again with his country.
A lot has changed for Simmonds when it comes to England, and he’s here to stay
‘I saw a lot when they announced the squad of, “these are the new players” and I was looking for my name as I feel I’m a new boy myself,’ the 27-year-old adds.
‘I want to have a fresh start. When I was last involved I was 23, and I still felt very young. I hadn’t played much first-team rugby.
‘My career was a bit different to some who play now who got game-time for their club and are selected at 19 or 20.
‘I was a later developer. I loved my time going on loan to Plymouth, Brixham and Cornish Pirates but that took up a lot of my early development.
‘I made my Premiership debut at 22, the season we won the title in 2016-17. I was not mature as a player. I loved being selected for England back then but didn’t love being there or take it in my stride. Now I want to play, to be starting or on the bench, push myself. I know what I need to do.’
While clamour grew for Simmonds’ inclusion during Exeter’s 2019-20 double-winning season, and last year when he scored 21 tries in 23 games, he focused on his club game. As much as he yearned to go into national camps, he believes that doing so might have hindered his progress.
Involvement in the Lions tour made Simmonds know he needed to be back in the England fold
‘People said I should be playing for England, but I was loving playing for Exeter,’ he says.
‘I might have been selected, gone and not played, just trained. It might have stunted my development. I’ve pushed on and got better. I’m in a good place to go back and see what I can do.’
He showed what he could do on the Lions tour but is amused that his kit is now spread all over Devon: one jersey is in his step-father’s office, another at Teignmouth RFC, training gear with his friends, and plenty else worn by his dad.
‘He loves it, he works on the fish quay in Teignmouth and probably wears everything there!’ laughs Simmonds, who has regularly been FaceTiming home from England camp, to partner Emily and their month-old daughter Billie.
Despite the 2-1 defeat he loved the Lions tour, bonding with Elliot Daly, Finn Russell et al sharing stories and beers in the bubble, and learning from Alun Wyn Jones and Owen Farrell.
Labelling himself as a ‘late developer’, Simmonds now feels he has a stage on which to shine
Simmonds says he learned a lot from Alun Wyn Jones and Owen Farrell on the Lions tour
‘They’re at the top of their game and Alun Wyn has been for, what, 40 years! It is because they work hard,’ he says. ‘Everyone has their opinion of Farrell but he wants to be the best and wants to win.
‘To play alongside them was amazing. When you think you’re working hard enough there’s still a long way to be the best. You could see after the last game we were gutted and could have, maybe should have, won but it wasn’t to be.’
Simmonds made the tour because of his amazing scoring season — and has an extraordinary 44 tries in 62 games in two years for Exeter and the Lions — but does not want to be labelled as purely a poacher.
‘I don’t want to be known as just a five-metre pick-and-go merchant,’ he says. ‘I want that in my game but I want to be a destructive ball-carrier who beats defenders. And not just in the Premiership, internationally as well.’
Simmonds (left) seen in training last week, is desperate to go back up against South Africa
He is particularly keen to play South Africa on Saturday now too, for some Lions revenge.
‘Hopefully I’m able to have an impact because I feel like if things had gone differently in that last Test we could have beaten them,’ he adds.
‘We’ve got the firepower to beat them. I’m very lucky to even have one cap. But I want more. I want to get into double figures and keep pushing. I haven’t had that many good moments playing for England — I’m hoping to make some now.’
Sam Simmonds is an ambassador for new athleisure wear brand Union Athletic. Find out more at unionathletic.co.uk.