Sam Simmonds: British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland backs Exeter Chiefs man to shine in South Africa
Simmonds has not featured for England since the 2018 Six Nations, but has been chosen as one of six back row players in Warren Gatland's Lions squad. "On the hard grounds in South Africa, with his footwork and pace, he gives us something a little bit different," Gatland said
Last Updated: 07/05/21 12:41pm
Warren Gatland is in no doubt Sam Simmonds has the perfect attributes to make an impact in South Africa after naming him in his British & Irish Lions squad for this year's tour.
The No 8 has emerged as one of the key players in Exeter Chiefs' rise to domestic and European prominence but has not featured for the England team since the 24-15 defeat to Ireland in the 2018 Six Nations.
However, Lions head coach Gatland opted for Simmonds as part of his six-strong back row contingent ahead of England regular Billy Vunipola and the New Zealander expects both the 26-year-old and Wales' Taulupe Faletau to complement each other in that position.
"What I like about him [Simmonds] is when you look at taking a squad to South Africa, you look at players who've got footwork," Gatland told Sky Sports.
"You're going to need that against the South Africans, who come pretty hard off their line. You've got Faletau who has got great footwork and Sam is a little bit the same.
"He's explosive and we can have a lot of variation around his game. We've been impressed with him and I keep saying this, but selection is only a matter of opinion.
"He wasn't in the England squad, but I think in the last couple of years he's played some outstanding rugby and we just feel on the hard grounds in South Africa, with his footwork and pace, he gives us something a little bit different."
I think in the last couple of years he's played some outstanding rugby and we just feel on the hard grounds in South Africa, with his footwork and pace, he gives us something a little bit different
Warren Gatland on Sam Simmonds
Gatland's desire to include extra cover in the back row led to him selecting a 37-strong squad rather than 36 as originally expected, although there were plenty of other surprise call-ups along with some big names missing out.
Simmonds' Exeter team-mate Jonny Hill, Scotland centre Chris Harris - one of eight Scottish players named, the most in an initial Lions squad since 1989 - and Irish pair Bundee Aki and Jack Conan have all been chosen by Gatland.
Meanwhile, Ireland captain Johnny Sexton and compatriot James Ryan, England tighthead prop Kyle Sinckler and Wales centre Jonathan Davies are among the more prominent players to miss out along with Vunipola - although his brother Mako did make the cut.
Emerging talents such as Wales wingers Louis Rees-Zammit and Josh Adams are included too and while he respects the fact a lot of players will be disappointed not to have made the Lions squad, he sees plenty in there to savour.
Simmonds, Aki, Conan, Hill in 37-man Lions squad
Sam Simmonds, who last played for England in 2018, has been included in a 37-man British and Irish Lions squad to face South Africa.
"I'm really excited about a lot of players," Gatland said. "There are some players who we feel are going to really improve from the Six Nations.
"If you look at the back three and the wingers, they've got a pretty good record in terms of try ratios and someone like Jonny May is really unlucky as well. I'm pretty excited about the development of some of those players.
"It's about trying to get the mix right with South Africa and the physicality they're going to bring, the ability to play some pretty attractive rugby, the excitement of players developing on tour and the experience of players who have won things in the past.
"To me, that's really important. If you've got the mentality of lifting trophies and know what it's like to be in big matches and finals...that's kind of important as well."
This will be Gatland's third tour as Lions head coach and fourth in total, having been part of Sir Ian McGeechan's staff as forwards coach for the 2009 series against the Springboks.
Although that series ended in a 2-1 defeat, Gatland believes it did much to restore the Lions' credibility after the disappointments of 2001 and 2005 in Australia and New Zealand respectively, and is aiming to build on the good work done during his previous two tours in charge.
"We came away thinking we'd done a pretty good job [in 2009]," Gatland said. "We'd restored some respect back into that jersey which was the first point we wanted to achieve, but we were disappointed because we felt like we could have won or even drawn that series as well.
"From there to 2013 and 2017, for me it's probably the trilogy and going back to South Africa as head coach with the ultimate goal of continuing what we've built on and continuing to build a brand.
"The Lions is unique, it's incredibly special and I want this brand to thrive, to go on and be a huge part of the rugby community."
From 6pm, tune in on Sky Sports for the Lions Announcement Special, where Alex Payne will be joined by Warren Gatland and Alun Wyn Jones as well as Bryan Habana and Will Greenwood.
Watch every match from South Africa exclusively live on Sky Sports this summer.