No 8 Sam plays for England and brother Joe is seen as the long-term future at ten for Exeter. But none of that matters on the driving range! This feature fist appeared in Rugby World in April.
My Day Off: Joe and Sam Simmonds of Exeter Chiefs
THERE IS no fighting at the driving range. Sam Simmonds is clearly happy with his work at Exminster Golf Centre after pummeling drives to respectable distances. And brother Joe is undeniably at home with a golf club in his hands.
Such calm is not totally commonplace for the two Exeter Chiefs. As soon as Sam, 23, and Joe, 21, start talking, they ricochet off each other. They challenge one another; laugh at the other’s views. They have a history of bickering.
With a look that whispers mischief, fly-half Joe throws this out: “There was actually a fight a couple of weeks ago.”
“Oh Christ, yeah, we nearly had a full-on fight before one of the games,” No 8 and England international Sam says in response. “We were at home… He just knows how to rile me a little bit.”
Joe picks up: “I was wearing one of his hats and he told me to take it off. I didn’t.”
Sam jumps in again: “I won’t go into it but he does know how to rattle me. I got a little bit annoyed with that, gave him a little kick and he lost his head, punched me twice. Mum comes running in…”
“It wasn’t proper punches, it was the heel of the hand,” says Joe, with a grin.
“It was. To the back of the head,” Sam counters. “Well, I was still standing after it. I think we just get a little too competitive.”
Socially, the pair from Teignmouth should be best observed as a double act.
In rugby terms, Sam has crept ahead of Joe after exploding onto the scene at the tail-end of Chiefs’ title-winning run in 2017.
Sam has carried his club form into this season. Last November Eddie Jones brought the racing-snake back-rower into his England set-up, capping him twice off the bench before giving him a first Test start against Samoa. With a number of squad injuries, he kept his place for the Six Nations wins over Italy and Wales, missed the loss to Scotland with shoulder gyp, and returned for Paris, coming on early in the defeat that ended England’s hopes of retaining their title. In the Premiership he has been simply explosive.
Joe, on the other hand, is seen as Exeter’s long-term successor to Gareth Steenson at ten. He is not blessed with imposing size but relishes the kicking game and is swiftly improving the nuances that every stand-off needs. He caught the eye during the international windows – and beyond, with a string of sublime displays – and if everything goes to plan you will be seeing a lot more of him over the next few seasons.
However different the two are on the pitch, though, there are ties that bind them. They both still live with mum Nicola and stepdad Dean. With Sam giving the housing market a look, it’s very likely Joe will move in with him.
It is tempting fate, that. Sam is often home before Joe, who is fond of staying behind after Chiefs’ training to do some extras. All too frequently, Joe will casually saunter through the door only to be terrified by Sam jumping out at him.
And with this, Joe recounts another close run-in with big bro: “I remember, this must have been a few years ago now, he was chasing me up the stairs.”
Sam, keen not to be the bad guy, explains: “He threw a ball up and hit it with something and it smacked me right in the face. We both just stood there for a moment and then he ran upstairs and locked himself in the bathroom.”
Joe concludes: “I was s******* myself and I put a £5 note under the toilet door to get him to go away. I was about to jump out the window I was that scared!”
Sam clearly has a hint of a temper and can get frustrated if he is not noticeably good at something. At least with golf.
In the summer, he was playing the nine-hole course at Starcross. He made it to the sixth hole before picking up his clubs and heading to his car, to sit and wait for the others to wrap up.
It was the taunting from mates who “weren’t very good either” that tipped him over the edge. Joe chips in that there is a key difference between the Simmonds brothers: Joe will play on.
Look at the two swings. Sam’s is a short, weighty jab, throwing his shoulders through everything without much lower-body movement. When he connects, especially with the driver, the ball bursts far.
By comparison, Joe’s swing looks like the spreading of whipped butter. It’s clear that Joe – who cannot sit still, according to Sam – has put in the hours. He’s never had lessons but has a single-digit handicap and, with one of his pals already doing so, he hopes that he could be a club pro when rugby is over.
Hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie is another Chief who is always scouting for a game of golf, regardless of his physical state or the weather. Sam can’t understand that, though he looks genuinely at ease here at the driving range. He’ll even come back to Exminster for a hit, he reckons.
The Simmonds pair’s sporting fates have usually followed similar lines. Both of them played football first. In a flight of good-natured delusion, Sam compares himself to Steven Gerrard, talking up his engine, while Joe says he was more like Wayne Rooney. They debate over who was the better footballer. Sam feels he was the player’s player, while Joe, who captained Torquay juniors, thinks he was technically better.
After Sam went to Ivybridge Community College and started really focusing on rugby, Joe followed suit. Rugby had always been at the background of their lives, with dad an openside and an uncle a six for Teignmouth and then Devon County.
It was at Ivybridge that a coach dissuaded Sam from moving out of the back row and back to the wing, where he’d played when he was younger. Joe, who tried the back row himself but got out of there as soon as he could, to utilise his footballing skills, is glad Sam stuck in the pack. “He’s a different player to what No 8s usually are,” Joe says.
And he is right. Sam has zip. The elder adds: “That’s the only way I know how to play, really. I’ve always loved trying to beat people and that’s the way I carry the ball I guess. I try to explode onto the ball, with some power. I don’t think in the game, ‘I’m going to step here’. It comes naturally. That’s the way I run the ball. If it works and it’s beating defenders…
“I think I can improve on my passing. I could set up others but if I do break the line I tend to keep going, keep carrying. Which is what the coaches at Exeter want from me, to be a strong carrier.
“Eddie’s almost the same I guess. He knows that me and the likes of Nathan Hughes and Billy Vunipola are all different in our stature and how we play. But if Eddie’s picking me on my form for Exeter, then I’m sure I’m doing something right. There are improvements they’ll want me to make, like put on a little bit more weight, which I feel like I’ve done since coming back from the autumn (Internationals).”
Joe flinches at this call and Sam adds: “I can’t get too heavy, can I? I wouldn’t be able to run. This is me now.”
He definitely doesn’t mean that he will stop improving, only that he now knows what kind of player he is. Both Simmonds brothers seem assured of what they are. They have been nurtured by Exeter and feel better for stints down the leagues, with Sam loaned to Cornish Pirates before becoming a hit and Joe having played for Plymouth in National One.
Both agree that part of Exeter’s brilliance is that DoR Rob Baxter both appreciates, and recruits talent from, the second-tier Championship. Examples of such successes are found in Wales tighthead Tomas Francis and England’s Harry Williams (who set up his own five-a-side team in Exeter and then insisted on playing himself up front).
Sam is thankful for his experiences down a league. He says: “There are clever players there. It’s just that the game moves so quickly now. Once you do get a little bit older you’re still a very good player, even though you’re maybe not playing Premiership rugby. And the Championship is still churning out good players every year.”
Joe, meanwhile, is happy for the room he has in which to grow his game down in Devon. “With Exeter you get a lot of opportunities to play, especially for the younger lads. They wouldn’t sign you for nothing; they’ve signed you because they think you can play at the same level as everyone else.
“It’s good having players like Gareth Steenson and the older boys around as you learn off them. They’ve been there and done that. It’s been great for me these last couple of years, being around the team and learning from everyone.”
On a ride back into Exeter, the two continue bouncing through conversation. They talk about the way the Chiefs play compared to a team like Glasgow Warriors, the fact Alec Hepburn drives a Buick and smokes a pipe, and why Sam is too crap at cooking to join Chiefs’ ‘Cookie Club’.
Maybe Sam will one day become a carpenter – he has done a course recently – and Joe will teach golf. Maybe they’ll leave home.
Until those days though, there’s lots more rugby to play and maybe, just maybe, a round of golf where one doesn’t try to kill the other.