Joe set to sizzle on Euro stage
By Mark Stevens
Joe Simmonds will be thrust centre stage tomorrow, handed the lead role, as Exeter Chiefs bid to keep their European dream alive for another week at least.
With just two rounds to play in Pool Two, nothing less than a victory will suffice for the Devonians against visiting Castres at Sandy Park (1pm).
Munster's 41-15 victory over Gloucester on Friday night has put them eight points clear of next-best Castres - and nine clear of the Chiefs, who the Irishmen will host in the final round of battle next Saturday.
Success, however, for Rob Baxter's side tomorrow against the reigning French champions will not only bolster the Chiefs' cause, but it will set-up a mouth-watering showdown at a packed out Thomond Park.
For that to happen, Simmonds - one of eight changes Baxter has made to his starting line-up from that which defeated Bristol Bears in the Premiership last time out - knows he has to deliver a stellar performance.
Having emerged as one of English rugby’s brightest talents last year, the 22-year-old has found this latest season much tougher. An up-and-down pre-season, coupled with the form of fellow No.10 Gareth Steenson, has meant Simmonds' exposure in the spotlight has been somewhat restricted.
Much of his on-field action this term has been in the role of full-back, helping add a new string to his bow in terms of his overall development. Tomorrow, however, he is back in his more customary position of chief playmaker - and ready to dictate the tempo in which the Chiefs have to hit the high notes.
“It’s a massive game against Castres,” said Simmonds. “Especially at home. We’ve tried not to think too much about how big a game it is or trying to get a result at the end of it. We’ve tried to focus on getting a big training week in and then going out there and being ourselves.
“Nothing really changes. Although it’s a knock-out game we still need to go out and enjoy ourselves and play the Chiefs way. It’s a great opportunity for us to nail these last two games down. We know what threats Castres will bring. They’re a big physical team and we know we’re going to have to be on it on the weekend.”
Simmonds demonstrated against the Bears the threat he poses himself, providing a potent mix of skill and guile alongside fellow half-back Nic White, who himself is another starter against the Frenchmen tomorrow.
To oust Steenson is no mean feat, particularly given the credentials of the Irishman, who for over 10 years now has been the fulcrum around a lot of what the Chiefs have achieved. It is, however, an opportunity for Simmonds that he is keen to make the most of.
“The good thing about this club is that if you’re playing well you’ll get picked and that’s fair enough,” he added. “It’s been the same for me this year. I obviously had a good end to last season but haven’t played as much as I’d have wanted to this season at 10. But it gives me time to think and work on things I need to improve on. Then when I get the chance I need to make sure I take it.
“There’s so much competition here it’s tough to really nail down the shirt. That’s good. It brings out the best in players.
“I’ve quite enjoyed it at full-back. I just want to be playing. I don’t want to be known as that guy who can only play 10. To get the opportunity to put a couple of shifts in at full-back has been great. It helps me out attacking a bit more and going to the line a bit more. When I move back to 10 I can feel more comfortable.”
Well, the proof will be in the pudding tomorrow for Simmonds and the Chiefs as they look to keep the dream alive.