Surprise star Simmonds shines for England in 6N

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England's Sam Simmonds runs on to score his second try of the game during the Six Nations rugby union international match between Italy and England at the Olympic Stadium, in Rome.

England's Sam Simmonds runs on to score his second try of the game during the Six Nations rugby union international match between Italy and England at the Olympic Stadium, in Rome. (Photo: AP)

He darted around the fringes like a scrumhalf, offloaded like a flyhalf, had the turn of foot of a winger, and posted the tackle count of a blindside flanker.

Sam Simmonds wore the No. 8 jersey on the day he announced himself on rugby's world stage, yet he could have had another number on his back such was his all-action display against Italy in the Six Nations on Sunday.

Providing a devastating alternative to the ballast of injured No. 8s Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes, Simmonds used his speed and mobility to score two tries, set up another and leave Italian defenders regularly clutching at thin air in England's 46-15 win in Rome.

"He is a bit of a freak, Simmo, isn't he?" said England winger Jack Nowell, who plays alongside him every week for English club champion Exeter.

On only his fourth appearance for England, Simmonds put up some eye catching, game-high numbers: 80 meters made, 23 tackles, 14 carries, three clean breaks. Such numbers will tough to repeat on Saturday, when the English should get a far sterner test by Wales at Twickenham, but his performance was not lost on England coach Eddie Jones.

"He's a great discovery for us," Jones said, "and gives us great options at No. 8."

With Vunipola out for the tournament because of a broken arm and Hughes missing the first three rounds at least with damaged knee ligaments, No. 8 looked to be England's weak point going into its bid for an unprecedented third straight Six Nations title.

Jones places so much importance on the heavy-duty ball-carrying of Vunipola and Hughes that the selection of the much lighter Simmonds — at 16 stone (101 kilogram) — was a big change of strategy.

The 23-year-old Simmonds, a fisherman's son who still lives with his parents, has a grounding in sevens rugby and hadn't even played a game in England's top division this time last year. Jones was wary about his lack of bulk — "we might have to send him down to Miyazaki in Japan to get him some Miyazaki beef," the coach joked before the Six Nations — but still took the plunge in selecting him against Italy.

If the first hour at the Stadio Olimpico was all about Simmonds' work rate defensively, the final 20 minutes were when he came into his own with ball in hand.

His first try came from an explosive run off the back of a maul, piercing Italy's defense. His second was virtually off a standing start as he received the ball, again bursting through the line with the acceleration of a winger.

England's final try saw Simmonds demonstrate a sleight of hand to offload a no-look pass to Nowell tight on the right touchline, allowing the winger to squeeze into the corner. Simmonds jumped and punched the air in delight.

England's Sam Simmonds carries the ball over the line to score a try during the Six Nations rugby union international match between Italy and England at the Olympic Stadium. Photo / AP
England's Sam Simmonds carries the ball over the line to score a try during the Six Nations rugby union international match between Italy and England at the Olympic Stadium. Photo / AP

"Sam's a good young lad with a great set of skills," Jones said. "If he was a cricketer, he'd be playing Twenty20. He's a bit different — he's fast and runs good lines."

His attitude also stood out.

"He's a completely humble boy who just gets on with it," Jones said. "He's fitted into the team well."

The question, now, is where Simmonds fits in, long term.

There's no doubt that Vunipola plays if he is fit, since he is one of the most destructive ball-carriers in the world.

So, will Simmonds be one of Jones' "finishers" — as the coach prefers to label his replacements — or does he find a place elsewhere in the back row?

In that case, he'd have to displace flanker Chris Robshaw, another player highly valued by Jones for his work rate, or one of the locks — Maro Itoje or Courtney Lawes — who often find themselves playing in the back row. If he goes with the latter, it would deprive Jones of an extra lineout option.

Initially, Simmonds might have to be content with being an impact substitute for when games open up and legs are tired. After all, he does speed work with England's backs in training.

"He is up there with the quickest I have played with," Nowell said, "and a lot of the boys here will say how quick he is."

Simmonds should at least get starts against Wales and then Scotland away in the third round of games, before Hughes is scheduled to return. Then Jones has a decision to make.

In the long term, it's yet another position where England has enviable strength in depth going into the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.

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