Before joining up with The British & Irish Lions for the first time, Sam Simmonds spent more than three years – or 1,198 days to be precise – in the international wilderness.
His last run out for England in the No.8 shirt was against Ireland in the 2018 Six Nations despite being one of the form players in the country for Exeter Chiefs in the past few seasons.
Simmonds was named European Player of the Year in 2019/20 as Chiefs won the Premiership and Champions Cup double while he smashed the league try-scoring record in the last campaign.
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And having caught the eye of Warren Gatland with his performances, the reigning Premiership Player of the Year is keen to ensure his return to the international stage in not a one-off.
“This is kind a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity if you’re lucky enough or good enough like Alun Wyn [Jones] or Mako [Vunipola], this is his third Tour and Faz [Owen Farrell] is on his third Tour,” he said.
“Those guys are lucky enough to be involved in several Tours but for some of us this is once in a lifetime and to be able to play against the calibre of players is amazing.
“To be able to play with them, to train with them, to get to know them off the field, to have a laugh, have a beer, is amazing and obviously I’m fortunate.
“I wasn’t able to do that in the Six Nations but I’m definitely enjoying it now and making to most of the time I have on this trip. It’s something that once you’re in it, you realise how good it is.
“I haven’t been selected in the England squad since 2018 so for me it feels fresh, new to what I’ve been used to for the last three years with club and the intensity goes up in training.
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“The physicality goes up in games but you quickly get used to that and you have to decide mentally that if you’re not quite on it then you’re going to fall behind and not get selected.
“Or you’re not going to be putting your hand up in training so I feel like I’ve upped my game a bit in training and when coming off the bench, trying to do my best and put my best foot forward.”
Simmonds has played in four of the five Tour matches since arriving in South Africa, starting the first game against the Cell C Sharks and making three further appearances off the bench.
He scored his first try for the Lions in the 49-3 win over Stormers and going into the Tests, he feels better equipped than he was when he first arrived on the England scene thanks to the Chiefs.
“The way Exeter is culturally, it prepared me for coming into an environment like this. It allowed me to be myself off the field and on the field,” added Simmonds.
“I feel like three or four years ago when I was involved in the England set-up, I was nervous going into camp and maybe that hindered my performances, maybe that hindered my training.
“Three years on now, with the work I’ve been doing at the club, allowing myself to be myself on the pitch, I wasn’t nervous coming into an environment like this at all.
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“I just relished it and I was so excited to be back in an international set-up. I was just fully set on coming out here and hopefully winning a Test series.”
Simmonds was a late arrival in the Lions camp along with his Exeter Chiefs teammates due to the Premiership final, which ended in a dramatic 40-38 defeat to Harlequins.
But the 26-year-old was able to put that disappointment behind him quickly to focus on his first Lions experience and while this is a Tour like no other, he has enjoyed every minute so far.
In fact, Simmonds believes the restrictions have only strengthened the squad’s bond.
“Speaking to boys who have been on previous Tour to New Zealand and Australia, it is different, we’re in a bubble and you’re not able to go out as much or activities outside of training,” he said.
“But for me my experience hasn’t been changed because of that. I feel we have almost come together as a group even more so and the bonds off the field are great.
“The time we have spent together, we pretty much spend 24 hours together because of what’s happening in the world at the moment and I probably see that as a positive.
“If you create bond off the field then when you get on the field they are already there, you know what some boys are going to do and the friendships are already there.
“You can build that into the training week and into the game and I don’t feel like my time has been hampered because of what’s going and the situation – I have just loved it.”