By Ali Stokes
Exeter Chiefs and England dynamo number eight Sam Simmonds has been dealt a heavy blow to his 2019 World Cup dreams this week, with the 23-year-old handed a 6-9 month prognosis for a knee ligament injury sustained during the Chiefs' Premiership victory over Worcester Warriors last weekend.
Exeter lock Jonny Hill has also received a disheartening return to play date, with the uncapped England summer tourist ruled out for just under five months with a finger ligament injury, expected to return to fitness in February.
Unveiling the extent of Simmonds' injury at the Heineken Champions Cup launch yesterday (Wednesday), Exeter Director of Rugby Rob Baxter said:
“If the operation and rehab goes really well, we’d like to hope that we can maybe see him before the end of the season, but it’s going to be touch and go,”
“Obviously, Sam is upset. I think he has [World Cup worries] and I can understand that. But the flip side is that he can’t get injured twice. He may well find that if he comes back fit and fresh, and manages to get a big month in with us before the end of the season, he could look like the guy who is absolutely flying.
“There will be a lot of others who have been playing every week, through the autumn and the Six Nations, and two or three of them might go down yet. Sam will be in cotton wool. There are a variety of ways to look at it. He’s just got to aim to get back.”
Simmonds will be aiming for a return to fitness before the end of the season if he is to keep his World Cup hopes alive. The Torquay-born backrower's chances of being included in Eddie Jones' World Cup squad will be slim without a minute of club rugby under his belt before the summer's preparations.
Simmonds' injury may open a door for Bath hotshot Zach Mercer, who had found himself fourth choice number eight behind Simmonds last year, with the latter of the pair earning caps during the 2018 Six Nations while the former was forced to settle for an uncapped appearance against the Barbarians in May.
With the poor injury records of barnstorming number eight duo Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes, Mercer may find himself shown extra favour from Jones this season.