Bath 16 Exeter Chiefs 38
Sam Simmonds might not have been good enough for England since 2018, at least in the eyes of Eddie Jones, but that might not stop him becoming a British and Irish Lion this summer.
With Warren Gatland in the stands at The Rec, the 26-year-old number eight inspired an Exeter Chiefs fightback from 13-0 behind that overwhelmed Bath. Amid a pride of potential Lions on show in an entertaining game, he stood out.
Tom O’Flaherty and Sam Skinner registered two tries each for Chiefs, with Jonny Gray also crossing the whitewash. But it was Simmonds senior, who scored his side’s second on the stroke of half-time, who personified Exeter’s steel more than anyone.
The back row opposite him was stacked. Wales star Taulupe Faletau had just won the official man of the match against England. Sam Underhill has been one of Eddie Jones’ most important individuals since 2019, and may be parachuted in for the Six Nations finale. Zach Mercer is in fine form.
And yet, Simmonds’ influence was obvious throughout on both sides of the ball – despite him not having featured for England since the 2018 Six Nations loss to Ireland.
“The development that three years gives you is invaluable,” said Exeter head coach Ali Hepher afterwards. “The defensive side of his game is way, way better. He still has that explosiveness and he’s stronger.”
Underhill’s 50-minute cameo would have encouraged Jones, at least. On his return from a hip problem, Underhill had already snaffled a breakdown turnover two metres from his own try-line when Bath went ahead in the eighth minute.
Priestland kicked a simple penalty and promptly laid on the hosts’ first try. He spotted Chiefs scrum-half Jack Maunder defending out wide and struck a kick-pass across the 22. Ruaridh McConnochie climbed, gathered and stretched over to score. It was a sublime finish.
In the build-up to Priestland’s second penalty, making it 13-0, Underhill surged down the touchline and flicked an offload from the floor to Faletau. The openside flanker was ubiquitous, even if a floaty spin-pass from the base of a ruck caused Bath’s management team to gasp.
Exeter had lost two of their previous three Premiership outings and were subdued for half an hour. The domestic and European champions only need a chink of light, though. Maunder arced off the back of a lineout to feed O’Flaherty. Perhaps expecting a trademark drive, Bath could not halt the left wing.
Chiefs’ second was all about Sam Simmonds. After bamboozling Priestland and sparking Exeter with a bustling run through midfield to within five metres, he powered over around the fringes.
Mindful that he is highly unlikely to see either Simmonds sibling in a Test match before picking his squad to face South Africa, Gatland wanted a closer look. Simmonds senior now has 13 tries for the Premiership campaign.
Asked whether Simmonds could thrive as a bolter for the Lions, wherever they may roam, Hepher was unequivocal. “One hundred per cent,” he added. “That’s what Lions tours are about. He’s got that ability, with his pace, to be a game-changer in any game. He is of international standard and should be playing [at that standard]. But it is what it is and he’s just got to keep on working week-in, week-out here. You never know where he might get to if he keeps performing well for us.”
Underhill made way 10 minutes into the second period, but his replacement, Miles Reid, forced the penalty from which Priestland landed his 36th consecutive shot at goal. Bath’s advantage nudged to 16-12. Reid then momentarily thwarted Chiefs before Skinner’s first try. Sam Simmonds’ burst from the base of a five-metre scrum had laid the foundations.
Scrum-half Stuart Townsend spurred Exeter from the bench. After Ian Whitten rushed Jonathan Joseph into an error, Simmonds tore off the base once more. Chiefs recycled and Gray was too strong, sealing the bonus point. Two minutes from the end, O’Flaherty’s slicing run off the shoulder of Townsend added gloss.
Scoring sequence: (Bath first) 3-0 Priestland pen, 8-0 McConnochie try, 10-0 Priestland conversion, 13-0 Priestland, 13-5 O’Flaherty try, 13-7 J Simmonds conversion, 13-12 S Simmonds try, 16-12 Priestland penalty, 16-17 Skinner try, 16-19 J Simmonds conversion, 16-24 Skinner try, 16-29 Gray try, 16-31 J Simmonds conversion, 16-36 O’Flaherty try, 16-38 J Simmonds conversion
Bath: T de Glanville; R McConnochie (J Cokanasiga, 63), J Joseph, J Matavesi, W Muir; R Priestland (T Schoeman, 70), B Spencer (W Chudley, 76); B Obano (J Bhatti, 69), T Dunn (J Walker, 63), H Thomas (C Judge, 50), J McNally (T Ellis, 73), E Stooke, T Faletau, S Underhill (M Reid, 50), Z Mercer
Exeter Chiefs: S Hogg (H Skinner, 78); F Cordero, I Whitten, O Devoto (T Hendrickson, 71), T O’Flaherty; J Simmonds, J Maunder (S Townsend, 55); A Hepburn (B Moon, 55), J Innard (E Taoine, 78), H Williams (T Francis, 55), J Gray, S Skinner (S Lonsdale, 73), D Ewers (J Kirsten, 50), J Vermeulen, S Simmonds
Referee: T Foley