If double champions are there to be shot at, no one told Harlequins. No one told Exeter. It feels as if there has been no off-season at all, so familiar and complete was this latest Chiefs victory – and of course there barely has been.
More familiarities. Sam Simmonds can still perform more or less every skill required of a rugby player, whatever the position. Another masterclass, another nod to Eddie Jones. Simmonds came away with a hat-trick of tries, from far out and from close range – it’s all the same to him.
“I’d love to play for England again,” he said. “I’d love to perform well for Exeter. I want to keep improving, keep putting my hand up.” One thing seems certain in this “new” season, less than a month on from the end of the last. The Sam Simmonds show looks set to continue. One hesitates to write too much about any English player these days. The national coach so dislikes it, he seems set on not picking anyone too popular with the press or public.
So let us content ourselves with noting in a sober manner the power, skill and uncommon pace of Exeter’s No 8. Midway through the first half, he brandished those qualities to quite startling effect, picking a line off his younger brother, Joe, and cutting clean through the Quins midfield, before running around Nathan Earle, a winger good enough to have been invited by the national coach to England’s tour of Argentina three years ago. Earle is every bit as quick as one might expect a would-be international winger to be. Not only did he not lay a finger on Simmonds as he arced round him, he could not get within a yard of him.
Sale 32-23 Northampton
AJ MacGinty (pictured) scored 14 points as Sale began their Premiership campaign with a nervy 32-23 victory over Northampton at the AJ Bell Stadium.
The Sharks ran in four tries to earn a bonus-point win, with Akker Van Der Merwe, Dan Du Preez, Simon Hammersley and MacGinty all going over. The visitors rallied late on, with Piers Francis’ try helping them cut the deficit, but Sale held on to earn five points.
“I thought we came out of the blocks pretty well, but we couldn’t build on it,” said Sale director of rugby Steve Diamond. “There is plenty to work on moving forward. There is a little bit of frustration. It’s their first run-out, but we have got to be better to challenge the top four.”It was a satisfactory start for Sale after the frustration of last season, when a coronavirus outbreak at the club forced them to forfeit their final fixture and their chance at making the play-offs. Meanwhile, Northampton director of rugby Chris Boyd confirmed after the game that he has signed a one-year contract extension.
Photograph: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images Europe
At the very next play, Simmonds hit a Harlequins prop so decisively, he spilled the ball. But we may have already said too much. Simmonds himself might prefer us to deflect some of the praise on to his brother, just to spread the risk. The brothers Simmonds will surely feature across the road soon, under this regime or the next.
It is to Harlequins’ credit, given the workout the Chiefs subjected them to, that that try was the only one of the first half. Marcus Smith, who will no doubt rival the man opposite him for years to come, had scored the first points of the season with an early penalty.
Quins’ main problem was their discipline. The penalty count against them mushroomed. They conceded two within five minutes of the resumption, before Exeter struck again from the second of them, which they kicked to the corner.
As if Simmonds Senior had not already made his England selection a dangerously obvious proposition, he next rose at the attacking lineout to show off his set piece skills. From the shift drive he set up, Dave Ewers charged unanswered to the try line. Joe Simmonds could not convert, which meant his run of 34 successful kicks had come to an end.
Quins were desperate for something. Smith sent a penalty, only their fourth of the match, to the corner. The promising Luke Northmore thought he had scored when he picked a fine line from the subsequent lineout, but Alex Dombrandt was penalised for obstruction. Dombrandt’s work at the breakdown, as opposed to his usual barnstorming work in the loose, was keeping Quins in the game as much as any of their virtues, but the home team could not capitalise.
The penalties against them kept coming at a rate of more than two to one, which means trouble against the Chiefs. When within a few yards, no side is more deadly. The pressure duly told in the last 10 minutes.
Two attacking lineouts; two more tries for Sam Simmonds; one more bonus-point win collected. Then Stuart Townsend was driven over at the death for Exeter’s fifth. By the end, Quins were out on their feet. The champions have barely broken stride.