Sam Simmonds made his Lions debut on Saturday from the bench
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Sam Simmonds has been challenged to prove that Warren Gatland was right to bring him out of the international wilderness when the Exeter forward makes his first start for the British and Irish Lions against the Sharks on Wednesday.
Simmonds, who won the last of his seven caps for England in March 2018, will be paired with fellow countryman Tom Curry in a mobile back row along with Wales flanker Josh Navidi when Gatland names his side on Monday.
The 26-year-old has been constantly overlooked by England head coach Eddie Jones, despite being named European player of the year last season and winning the Premiership award this season after scoring a record 21 tries.
Gatland, however, believes Simmonds can bring a point of difference to his Lions pack, given his remarkable speed and quick feet for a No 8.
And after a cameo display in the 56-14 victory over the Sigma Lions in the opening tour match at Ellis Park on Saturday night, Simmonds is aware of the significance of his first start on Wednesday.
“It was great to get the win and it was nice to get off the bench but starting is different and to be involved in a starting XV would be amazing,” said Simmonds.
“When you are starting you really get the opportunity to show what you can do and hopefully put what I have been doing in the last year or so into a Lions jersey.
“As soon as I got selected for the Lions squad that was my sole focus – to push everyone here, to push to try and get as many games as I can and as a team the ultimate goal is to win the Test series in South Africa.
“Since being selected, that’s what you’ve been waiting for, to be able to pull on the shirt and represent the Lions and just be amongst it with all the history and the players that have been before you."
Question marks have been asked whether Simmonds, who is just over 6ft tall and weighs 16st, has the necessary physique required to go toe-to-toe with the heavyweight Springbok pack.
But Gatland’s backing for him has given the confidence to play his own all-court game against the Sharks at Ellis Park.
"Gats has pretty much said: ‘Go out and just do what you have been doing,’ Simmonds added.
“It is not quite a free licence, but he has told me to unshackle myself and go and prove why they picked me and why I’m in the squad.
“They are the ones who have given me this opportunity. It’s up to me then to put my game on the opposition. Training has been like that. It has been short and sharp. It allows you to get into the game straight away.
“It is tough here at altitude so it’s good to keep the sessions quite short. But bodes well for games.
“I don’t think I’ve met one South African who isn’t physical. Playing with Jacques Vermeulen and Jannes Kirsten, that is what their game is built around – physicality.
“They gave me some tips on coming down here to their country. It was a physical game on Saturday. Their forwards stood up and we managed to score a lot of points out wide.
“There are plenty of things for us to work on, which is always good after a first game. But yeah, I’m looking forward to the physicality and the challenge on Wednesday.”
Simmonds said he has also received messages of support from his brother Joe, the Exeter captain, and his family had been able to share the moment of receiving his Lions cap via live stream from the changing room.
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Gatland has revealed that Curry has recovered from a “slight pectoral strain” he sustained in the gym at the start of last week and said he was excited about the prospect of fielding such a mobile back row.
“It’s a different type of loose forward trio, but exciting in another way as well,” Gatland said. So it will be interesting to see how they gel together.”
Meanwhile, RG Snyman, the South African lock, has had a skin graft operation to treat injuries after sustaining severe burns when petrol was poured onto a fire-pit during a social gathering with team-mates from Munster.
Springboks centre Damian De Allende also suffered damage to his legs, hands and face in the same incident.
Neither player has returned to training yet and it appears Snyman is now unlikely to feature in the Test series against the Lions.
Springboks forwards coach Deon Davids said: “RG Snyman is currently out of the squad, he is not with us.
"He went for a skin graft operation. Obviously, he will start his process of rehabilitation. As he recovers and we get medical updates, he will return to the squad.
“At this stage, I think there will be a small chance that he will be part of the British and Irish Lions Test series.”
Gavin Mairs’ Lions XV for the first Test