The rise of Joe Simmonds: The Exeter fly-half hoping to lead the Chiefs to glory

Joe Simmonds will lead Exeter Chiefs in Saturday's Champions Cup final at Ashton Gate
©Steve Haag Sports

Listening to Exeter Chiefs Director of Rugby Rob Baxter, you wouldn’t think his team are entering two of the biggest fixtures in the club’s history over the course of the next eight days.

In his press conference on Wednesday, the Chiefs boss was calmness personified but it is hard to dodge the expectation and excitement surrounding his side at the moment.

Ten years ago, Exeter clinched promotion to the Premiership and it triggered a journey of sustained progression for the Devonshire club, but now Baxter and his squad are on the threshold of a famous league and European Cup double.

Their fifth successive Premiership final is still to come next weekend, but the latest chapter in the club’s remarkable rise will take place in the city where Exeter’s evolution arguably began.

When the Chiefs secured their place in the top-flight of English rugby, they did so by beating Bristol at the Memorial Stadium. Just over a decade later, the club are back in the West Country for a European Champions Cup final against the stars of Racing 92.

Exeter have been an unstoppable force this season and some of their current homegrown talent have been integral, not only to their impressive campaign this year, but to the success the club has experienced since 2010.

To name just a few, the likes of Jack Nowell, Henry Slade and Luke Cowan-Dickie have all been nurtured in Devon so they will be desperate to lift Exeter’s first ever European-title on Saturday evening, and the same emotions will apply to fellow local lads Sam and Joe Simmonds.

The duo have been outstanding for the Chiefs this term and last month, the brothers both dotted down in the Champions Cup semi-final victory against Toulouse. Sam is two years older than Joe, but the latter is set to lead out Exeter at Ashton Gate this weekend having captained his team to edge of glory.

At 23 years-old, the fly-half would go down in Chiefs folklore if he was able to guide his side to a maiden European crown and whilst the club’s overall journey has a romantic feel about it, the story of Joe Simmonds’ rise only adds to the narrative.

Talking Rugby Union spoke to some of the people who have helped, and witnessed, Simmonds’ progression in the game.

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It is well documented that Teignmouth RFC is the hometown team of Simmonds and his brother, Sam.

Their father, David, and uncle, Rob, are also part of the fabric of the club but Simmonds Jnr only turned to rugby after beginning his sporting journey in the world of football with Torquay United’s academy.

Simmonds was initially involved with the Colts set-up at Teignmouth, but his raw talent was immediately spotted by 1st XV player/coach and former Exeter Chief Jason Luff who provided the then 17-year-old with his first real taste of adult rugby.

“He was quite slight, but the skill set he had and the ability to throw perfect passes off both hands whilst running was something to behold,” Luff tells TRU. “Obviously, he has got a massive boot on him as well so he got plucked from the Colts and stuck straight into the first team.

“He just took it all in his stride. He wasn’t out of his depth at all. They were quite physical games. There were some fat lumps who saw that there was this young lad who barely had a moustache so they were charging down his channel, but he definitely stood his ground!

“I was coaching at the time and I was playing as well so having someone with his skill set in the team just meant we could just do anything! We had a great year when we got promoted out of Western Counties West that year. Joe was man of the match most weeks. He just dealt with everything that came his way and it was all part of his development. There is this lad who is uber-talented and just playing rugby locally, but I don’t think he realised how good he was.”

Simmonds’ ability on the pitch brought a reassurance to Teignmouth’s play as they went on to clinch a league and cup double during his spell with the club.

Since then, the fly-half has gone on to become Exeter’s skipper and both Luff and Simmonds’ Ivybridge College coach, Ben Russell, can recall moments when his leadership qualities were evident from an early age.

Luff: “I think in one of his first games, he was obviously quite a shy and timid lad but we had some very strong personalities throughout the team and I think that was a real eye-opener for him. He turned up to this game and instead of a professional warm-up, there were a load of the lads rolling around in the mud pretending to do goalkeeper saves! I remember looking at his face and him giving a bit of a headshake thinking ‘what is going on here?!’

“Another story was a training thing. I would kind of just nibble at him, not in aggressive way, but I just wanted to try and get a reaction out of him because he was so nice!

“We were all pissing around and it was in the mud and he just kind of slammed the ball on the deck and gave everyone a dressing down. You just saw this man step out of this 17-year-old’s body! We all respected him because of his talent, but that was a real watershed moment where he realised that he was in control of this group and these men.”

Russell: “The first time I saw Joe play was for the AASE team and they were playing Henley College. There was a young kid playing at 10 called Sam Brown and Joe was playing at centre. He was a leader then at 18. Sam was a Year 11 and was 16-years-old and it was big step up for him into AASE rugby at that time, but Joe just took him under his wing and took a lot of pressure off him.”

Plymouth Albion’s Herbie Stupple can relate to Russell’s comments. The forward has spent 10 years with the National One outfit and after making his way into the Exeter set-up, Simmonds had a brief spell at Brickfields as part of his development.

“Joe helped me a lot, to be fair,” Stupple tells TRU. “By doing what he had to do on the field and controlling the games, it made my life a lot easier. He let his rugby do the talking. If you’re bossing it on the pitch, then you don’t have to say very much! When he kicks it perfectly into the corner, as a forward, we are laughing.

“I just remember him making things happen out of nothing. Talent-wise, he is by far one of the best players we have had down at the club. We have had some great guys from Exeter, but he sticks out big time.

“We’d have him for about four weeks and he would be the best player on the field by far and after that, we wouldn’t see him because he was back with Exeter and we’d be looking around at each other saying ‘we need Joe!’ He was exceptional.”

Around the same period, Simmonds also experienced the National Two South division with local side Taunton Titans.

Jason Luff had brought the exciting back to the attention of head coach and ex-Chiefs team-mate Tony Yapp and when the option to bring Simmonds to Taunton arose, there was no hesitation from the club.

“When I first heard about Joe, it was way before he came to Taunton,” Yapp says. “He was at Teignmouth and he was doing really well. Obviously, we were over the moon that he was able to come to us and spend some time with us a few years ago.

“He was quite quiet and he just went about his business. What I liked about Joe is that he is one of those guys who tends to roll his sleeves up and gets on with it. Sometimes you get players coming through who are quite confident and a little bit noisier, but Joe wasn’t. He was a smart player and he learnt very quickly.

“Would you say he was destined for big things? Yeah, you’d like think so because he was such a good player, but in this day and age, it is very difficult to really identify that. What he has kind of achieved at Exeter under the guidance of Ali [Hepher], Rob [Baxter] and Ricky Pellow has been excellent.”

Taunton full-back Gary Kingdom, who played alongside Yapp for Exeter, also coached Simmonds at Teignmouth: “What he has gone on to achieve has been incredible for him and the local area.”

For current Director of Rugby Rob Baxter, he has played a vital role in Simmonds’ rapid rise. The decision to trust a 23-year-old to lead international stars and British and Irish Lions wouldn’t have been taken lightly, but Exeter’s boss has had full faith in his fly-half throughout his development.

“We’ve seen Joe as a young player coming through, playing very well and playing with a big future,” Baxter said. “We introduced him into our leadership group because as a young fly-half coming through, he had to start taking responsibility for leadership of areas of the game.

“As things happened over the last two years, he’s become one of that leadership group that has started regularly so we felt if we were going down that same path, we would follow it through and give him the opportunity to captain the side and he’s done that very well.

“The great thing about Joe is that he can just get on with it. There have been big games where it has taken him a little while to adapt, but the best thing is he has adapted in the end. Young players need to be able to adapt and move on and realise when things aren’t quite right and that is probably the best feature of Joe’s season this year. That is a credit to him.

“The biggest thing for me is just to look at his face after the game to see how much emotion he has put into that performance. What do people want more than anything else? They want an emotional leader and I see that in Joe. That means more to me than anything else.”

Simmonds’ performances for Exeter have also put him in the frame for England recognition and whilst many - including the people you have heard from - are backing the fly-half to feature in Eddie Jones’ plans, his undivided attention will be on this weekend’s Champions Cup final.

And whether it is at Teignmouth RFC or Ivybridge College or at Plymouth Albion or Taunton Titans, Simmonds and his Chiefs team-mates will have the full support of the south-west…well almost!

Russell: “People are having a laugh with me about this! They are like who are you going to support?! This weekend I have said Racing 92 because I used to play for them during my rugby career!

“Going back to Joe, he has already played against some of the best 10s in Europe. I don’t think he will be daunted by it. I think he has been nurtured really well by Exeter and I think he has become an all-round 10. It would be nice if Chiefs win it because of where they have come from since their Championship days.”

Luff: “Joe is just a really nice lad. His Mum and Dad have raised him really well and he and his brother are just a real credit to their family and how they have progressed. It must be so special to be playing with each other and having all these amazing achievements together. In a strange way, he taught me more than I taught him and it was a real pleasure and privilege to work with him.”

Yapp: “When you look back at 2016/2017, if you had said Joe would be part of the first team in 2019/20 at Exeter, that would have been a brilliant achievement in itself but now he is playing in a European Cup final and is the captain of a Premiership team that is also in the Premiership final! It is a huge credit to him. It makes you very proud to say you know people like Joe and seeing him play at the highest level. We are over the moon for Joe and we wish him all the very best.”

Stupple: “I could see his development happening even when he came to Plymouth and that is why he didn’t spend long with us because he progressed so quick. The biggest thing for me was how nice of a lad he was which makes things like this weekend so much sweeter.”

A decade has passed since Exeter were promoted into the top flight of English rugby and now they are 80 minutes away from becoming kings of Europe. Led by Simmonds, Baxter’s charges have the chance to create yet another piece of history in their remarkable story.

Baxter: “If you can walk through the lobby downstairs and there is the Heineken Cup there in the cabinet, that elevates everything else you do moving forward. Those are things for the future and as much as they are the bigger things, actually, it is time for us to be a lot simpler than that.

“It is going to be a group of players getting on a couple of coaches heading to Bristol, focusing on each other and seeing what they can achieve in what we hope will be an incredible 80 minutes.”

 

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