Rob Baxter has sent an ominous warning to Exeter Chiefs’ Premiership rivals that rising England star Sam Simmonds is looking fitter, stronger and bigger than ever before.
The 24-year-old from Teignmouth suffered a nasty Anterior Cruciate Ligament injury early in the season which came as a devastating blow to Simmonds, who was named the Premiership’s young player of the year last season.
Seven months on and Simmonds has come through an intense rehab period to put himself in contention for the Chiefs’ final league game of the season against Northampton Saints this weekend – and a place in Eddie Jones’ World Cup squad.
“He has done fantastically well and he was back playing an A-League game seven months after an ACL injury,” Baxter said. “He’s worked extremely hard and been nudged along by an extremely hard working group of physios and strength and conditioners who, right from the outset when he did the injury, targeted that he would have some involvement at the end of the season.
“I feel elated for Sam that the rest of the team have created a scenario where we have an end of season fixture with the semi-final and it has kind of made the hard work worthwhile and there is now an opportunity for him to be involved.
“The way I have watched him train and play in the A-League game doesn’t suggest there is too much rustiness there. But obviously, until we get him on the field in a tough Premiership game, it is hard to tell.
“I have every confidence in him. He looks quicker, stronger and fitter than he ever has before – and bigger – so all the weapons are there for him to use. Now it’s up to him to go out there and unleash it with some confidence.”
It would be unfair to say the Chiefs have missed the talismanic number eight as they wrapped up a home semi-final place in record time. But to have him available for the season’s finale, where Chiefs will seek a fourth successive place in the Premiership final, is great news for Baxter.
In fact, the Exeter boss is blessed to enter this weekend’s final round of fixtures with a virtually fully fit squad as his players start staking their claims for a place in the XV that lines up in the semi-final at Sandy Park a week later.
“We are probably, in terms of available bodies, about as strong as we have been. We still have a couple of lads out – Stu Townsend is out for the season, so he won’t be around and Mitch Lees is still struggling with a calf issue – but aside from that, everyone else is pretty much up and running.
“i am not saying everyone has got great game time into them because they haven’t, but guys like Sam Skinner, Sam Simmonds are available; Santi (Cordero) is close but Saturday might be too early for him but everyone else is up and running.
“It’s going to be an interesting couple of weeks for us.”
Chiefs know a point will be enough for them to cement top spot in the league for the second season running, but they will also have a say in who finishes fourth.
Weekend opponents Northampton (fourth, 56 points) have the advantage and a bonus point win for them could see them return to Devon a week later, if Chiefs finish in top spot.
Harlequins (55 points) are currently fifth and head to Wasps, while Bath (51) could sneak in with a huge win at Leicester, although that is unlikely due to their inferior points difference.