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Rugby

24th Mar 2022

How many other European Cup winners started off as their club’s groundsman?

Patrick McCarry

Exeter Chiefs

“We’re different down here. It’s a different club; a different culture.”

From Sandy Park to Teignmouth is not just over 20 minutes away, if you catch the lights the right way. Life flows more casually in England’s South West, but Joe Simmonds never knew it any other way.

“That’s the thing,” he tells us. “We’ve got the beaches on our doorstep. Lots of outdoor activities. I do love it down here in Exeter. We are very lucky.”

Growing up, with older brother Sam the nearest and dearest guy he could compete with [on an hourly basis], Simmonds remembers always being straight out the door to play sport whenever he got home from school. Whatever it was – football, rugby, tennis, golf – he was in, the school-bag was dropped and he was back out.

He was six (going on seven!) when Jonny Wilkinson slotted the drop goal that won England the 2003 World Cup. Consider the outhalf seed planted in his mind.

“Growing up, football was my main sport. Same for Sam, really. All our mates were keen footballers. I thought that would be my path – being a footballer… there was nothing us but sport I could have done as a career, really!”

Simmonds was in with the Torquay United academy for a spell, but as his football dreams looked to be fading, his older brother was making strides with Exeter Chiefs.

Sam Simmonds (L) of Exeter Chiefs poses alongside his brother and teammate Joe Simmonds of Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park, in October 2020. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

‘I was cutting the grass on the main pitch’

Rugby, for Joe Simmonds, was just about getting along with a ball to the local club and pegging it onto the pitch with mates when it was all marked up for the senior side. He recalls getting along to see Exeter beat Bristol in a 2009 match that secured their promotion to the Premiership.

From 15, Simmonds directed his focus at making it with Exeter. When he was 18, he got a place with their academy, but he would have to work to earn his keep.

“My route was very different to others. I didn’t sign straight away. I did an apprenticeship deal. I did a little bit of work on the side, then trained… I don’t really speak to too many people about this, but I was cutting the grass at Exeter, the main pitch. I was like the groundsman there. I used to watch all the boys walking up to training as I was sat there cutting the pitch!”

The hands-on experience, helping out about the club, is similar to what Irish side Connacht do with their academy lads. Many Connacht players, who have gone on to star with province and country, have worked behind the bar, or collecting glasses, on game-night, or taking in tickets at the turn-style. Simmonds knows all about it.

“Although you are not getting paid very much, you’re getting something and you’re in and around the place every day. You’re getting called up to train with the [senior] players, you’re gyming with them but you have something on the side to keep you going.”

“This is the good thing about Exeter,” he adds. “The academy manager said they were signing players that they thought could be better than Henry Slade and Gareth Steenson. I would say I’m a bit of a late bloomer, but they took a chance on me, and had me in and around the squad. And as soon as the opportunity came, I had to make sure I took it.

“It was a path I would never change, the way I came up through rugby. Sometimes you can get it too easy and sign a contract – whether it is three or four years – and just be happy to be there. But I had to work and train hard for it. It definitely pushed me on.”

Gareth Steenson of Exeter Chiefs poses with the Gallagher Premiership trophy and the European Champions Cup, in October 2020. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

‘It’s definitely not for everyone’

Jonny Wilkinson was the early idol for Joe Simmonds, but the man he credits for guiding him during his formative years in the Exeter senior squad is Gareth Steenson.

From Armagh, in Northern Ireland, Steenson found No.10 opportunities limited at Ulster as David Humphreys was still top dog. He headed to England and ended up in Exeter, via Rotherham and the Cornish Pirates. The outhalf played in that 2009 promotion decider that a 12-year-old Simmonds watched from the stands with his family.

“Having someone like Gareth Steenson ahead of me, he had played so many games for Exeter, scored so many points and was such a good kicker.

“I was travelling reserve for the 2017 Prem final, and to experience that was massive. To be on the sideline watching, even before we won it, I was like, ‘This is where I want to be. This is what I want to do’. That was a turning point for me, with the way I trained and played.”

Simmonds had to wait until March 2018 before he made his senior debut. Once he did, there was no looking back. In less than two years, he was captaining the side in Europe.

Sustained success, and being in the mix for titles, has seen the club able to attract a number of high-profile players. Steenson once described Exeter as thriving on being considered outsiders, and not part of that traditional club rugby set. “For years,” he said, “we played with a chip on our shoulder.”

Simmonds nods along as he hears the line. Exeter is not your average Premiership club.

“We’re different down here. It’s a different club; a different culture. I’ve never experienced anything different or been in another team. Players coming in, you have to fully buy into it, or you’re not going to really fit it. It’s a great culture and we’re all best friends at the club, you just have to be willing to buy in.

“The likes of Stuart Hogg and Jonny Gray, they are massive [Scotland] internationals. You might think they could come here with egos, or be a bit arrogant, but it’s the exact opposite. They are willing to do all they can to fit in. We have a team culture that if everyone works hard, everyone enjoys it. It’s definitely not for everyone but if you have a mindset of working hard and enjoying your rugby, you’ll easily fit in.”

Joe Simmonds of Exeter Chiefs looks on during a training session at Sandy Park. (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

Joe Simmonds on Exeter’s memorable double

That same season Simmonds was asked to captain Exeter, 2019/20, saw them clinch a Premiership and European Cup double.

That achievement is part of a documentary that airs this Friday [March 25] on BT Sport, called ‘Devon Double’. Asked what those trophy wins meant to the club, and the area, Simmonds says:

“A lot. Not having friends and family there [at the Champions Cup final], as soon as the final whistle went, I looked at my phone and there were messages from everyone. The whole of Teignmouth messaged me. The whole of Exeter. I didn’t know that many people knew me!

“Looking at those messages on my phone, it showed how much it meant to people. Because it was a tough year. We were still in that Covid lockdown period [October 2020] and it helped a lot of the people around Exeter get over that year we’d had. Exeter is not very big, and everyone knows about the rugby club. It helped a lot of people that were struggling, at that time.”

“Growing up,” Joe Simmonds reflects, “I watched Jonny Wilkinson lift that cup. So for Joe from Teignmouth to be doing it is pretty crazy!”

Watch Rugby Stories, a new documentary series airing every Friday on BT Sport around the thirteen clubs in the 2021/22 Gallagher Premiership. The series continues with ‘Devon Double’ the story of Exeter Chiefs in 2020, on Friday, March 25 at 10pm on BT Sport 2. For more information visit bt.com/sport

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