The Breakdown | Try hard: Sam Simmonds closing in on Chapman’s 23-year-old record
One of the most sought-after achievements in club rugby celebrated its 23rd birthday this week. On 17 May 1998 the diminutive but distinctly rapid Richmond winger Dominic Chapman touched down twice at Sale’s Heywood Road to extend his try-scoring tally for the season to 17 in 22 Premiership games. It has since been equalled by Wasps’ Christian Wade in 2016-17 but never overtaken.
Now, at long last, Chapman’s peak could soon be eclipsed. Exeter’s Sam Simmonds has scored 16 tries in 17 league matches with four regular season rounds left. He and his team face London Irish on Tuesday evening and the last time the flying Chief faced the Exiles, in February, he touched down twice: a similar return at Brentford and Chapman’s claim to fame will finally need some updating.
Before expanding further on Simmonds’s rare talent – he is, lest it be forgotten, a forward – it is worth pausing momentarily to wind the clock back and reflect on the original record. Chapman, all 5ft 9in of him, was part of a very decent Richmond side – Scott Quinnell, Ben Clarke, Gus Pichot, Alan Bateman, Adrian Davies etc – and the idea that defending was slightly more optional back in the day is backed up by neither the era’s teamsheets nor the statistical evidence.
Aside from Chapman only three other players in the league – Sale’s equally pacy Tom Beim, the outstanding Scotland scrum-half Gary Armstrong and the marauding Quinnell – made it into double figures. The mind’s eye recalls Chapman, who turned 22 only late in the season, generally being too quick to catch; like a water boatman on a pond he seemed to glide over the most saturated of surfaces and leave the cover defence trailing.
Sadly the elusive Chapman, capped off the bench in England’s 76-0 tour defeat against Australia that same year, remains exactly that: the Breakdown has been trying its hardest to track him down but to no avail. The record books, though, speak for themselves: nine of his tries came with a rush in the season’s last six games, including a hat-trick against Bristol and two-try contributions on successive April weekends against Northampton and Gloucester.
If anyone was going to break it, the prolific duo of Wade and Chris Ashton would have been decent bets. But while Wade, before trying his luck in American football, did draw level in May 2017 during a 35-15 win against a slightly weakened Saracens, the best return Ashton could muster was 16 for Northampton in 2010. In terms of forwards, both Neil Back (Leicester) in 1998-99 and Thomas Waldrom (Exeter) in 2014-15 have also managed 16 in a season, underlining the value of a predatory back-rower from close range.
None of the above, though, posed the triple threat currently offered by the 26-year-old Simmonds. Not only can the Teignmouth tearaway score spectacular tries from halfway, as demonstrated at Harlequins on the opening day of the season, but he can also hammer them in from two metres and create havoc with his dancing footwork and strength out wide. Power, pace and precision is a useful trifecta, as the British & Irish Lions head coach, Warren Gatland, has identified.
Those who work most closely with Simmonds on a day-to-day basis firmly believe he is scoring tries that mere mortals would not. “There are games when he shouldn’t be scoring tries and he’s still finishing them off,” says his club captain, Jack Yeandle. “He’s very, very athletic. He was always a standout performer in sevens and he’s got the pace and power of a back. Some of his tries have been absolutely phenomenal … just pure individual brilliance.”
Yeandle also highlights Simmonds’s consistency, even if the latter had eight tries already chalked up after the first four games on the back of being crowned European player of the year after helping Exeter to secure their trophy double in October. The No 8 drew a rare blank in January but two more tries against Worcester this month have elevated him seven clear of the rest of the field.
As and when he reaches the holy grail, however, a share of the credit will also be due to the aforementioned Waldrom, whose instincts and ability to anticipate exactly when to strike close to the line remain as much a part of Chiefs’ folklore as his improbable physique. “He probably did pick up a lot from Tom Waldrom in terms of being in the right place at the right time but he’s not necessarily as greedy as Tom was,” jokes Yeandle. “Tom would lawn mower a few people to get himself on the ball close to the try line.”
The Chiefs’ director of rugby, Rob Baxter, also believes the precedent set by Waldrom’s stocky frame helped to propel Simmonds into the starting lineup more smoothly than might otherwise have been the case. “With Tom Waldrom here we worked around having a pack of forwards with a shorter, stockier, powerful ball-carrying eight. It complemented our pack really well so once Simmo started showing those qualities there was a way into the team for him. It wasn’t like we were trying to replace a 6ft 5in No 8.”
Very soon the grateful Chiefs were seeing what England, for some reason, have mostly ignored. “He very quickly started having games when he’d just scorch through defences,” says Baxter. “What he’s added to that, to his credit, is a bulk and power that is very effective for us when he is on the ball in mauls. He’s very good at pick and gos and he doesn’t get the credit for the amount of stop tackles he puts in. Align that to his pace and it’s all there. But it’s been a growing package he’s had to work very hard to achieve. And you’ve also got seven other forwards in that pack who understand his role. For both his tries against Worcester I think Dave Ewers was the bloke behind him latching on and helping him over.”
All that is left now is to leave all those try-hungry wingers choking on his dust and to finish with a flourish. Rugby officialdom, for some reason, seems to prefer to lavish golden boots on its goalkickers rather than its try-scoring, ground-breaking top guns. Could this be the year, thanks to the electric Simmonds, that everyone finally sees the light?