Two of the best fly-halves in the world go head-to-head in the Heineken Champions Cup final on Saturday evening.
Some may scoff at the suggestion the Exeter Chiefs captain Joe Simmonds is in that category just yet, but make no mistake the Teignmouth man is heading in that direction quickly.
He will stand opposite mercurial 49-cap Scottish international Finn Russell at the weekend who like Simmonds is in the form of his life at French side Racing 92, with many tipping him for a place on the Lions tour this summer.
In many ways Exeter and Racing’s characters and style as rugby clubs are reflected in the playing style of their fly-halves.
Russell and his all-star razzmatazz Parisian side are entertainers, dancers, balletic side stepping, offloading rugby poets who play their home games in a glitzy indoors stadium built to house pop concerts. Russell is their enigmatic frontman.
Exeter, nestled in the farming heartlands of England are the proverbial agricultural monster machine, capable of steamrolling over even the best of sides, as demonstrated against Toulouse in the semi-final – and Simmonds is at the steering wheel, with his foot to the floor.
On Saturday, the 23-year-old Exeter captain was sublime as he thoroughly outplayed 50-cap Welsh international Rhys Priestland who has a decade more experience of big game scenarios. But it mattered not.
It is not like the Welshman is withering away as the years roll on either, most agree the Bath man is in the form of his life, earning the Gallagher Premiership Golden Boot this season as he has led the Blue, Black and White’s drive up the table since rugby return from lockdown.
But he was thoroughly second best in the Premiership semi-final as Bath were beaten 35-6.
Simmonds’ detractors question whether he has the running game to step up to international rugby just yet – Saturday’s performance felt like a come and get me call to England head coach Eddie Jones as he set-up two tries with stunning breaks, running through British Lion Jonathan Joseph before offloading to Stuart Hogg to dive over and then stepping Priestland like he was a statue before riding the tackle of another British Lion, Anthony Watson, to offload for Ollie Deveto to score. He was unstoppable at times.
If Exeter kicked for the posts more often, other than for conversions, Simmonds would be the golden boot winner as well because he barely misses with an 89 percent success rate over the regular Premiership season. The only man with a better strike rate in the league, his retiring teammate Gareth Steenson, with 92 percent accuracy.
And Steenson certainly knows quality when he sees it. Having handed over the mantle as talisman at club level, the Irishman believes Simmonds is ready for international honours, he said: “He has all the attributes. He is leading us incredibly well, he has led us into a Premiership final and a Heineken Cup final. He has got a lot of experience. He has played in a couple of Premiership finals, albeit he has been on the losing side of those games, but they are in the bank.
“But hopefully for Joe, he is still only 23 years of age and you have to think where could he be in a couple of years’ time with this club?
“If the club keep pushing forward, he is going to be the spearhead of that.”
Discussing what make Simmonds an outstanding player in such a key role, Exeter club legend Steenson – who is due to become kicking coach at Chiefs next season, said: “It is great because he has had to step up to that position, he has been leading the boys, but it’s his performances on the field — he defends well, he attacks the gain line really well and his goal-kicking is very assured.
“He is a real catalyst for what we are doing now and it is a real credit to him personally in how he is driving international guys around the field. He has pushed the club forward.”
But Exeter are far from a one-man team, in fact nothing could be further from the truth. The Chiefs have two men on the shortlist for European Player of the Year in Joe’s brother, number eight Sam Simmonds and full-back Stuart Hogg, while half a dozen others would like make a 2020 Heineken Champions Cup Dream Team.
And Scotland captain Hogg certainly knows all about another nominee for the award in the form of international team mate Finn Russell, having grown up playing together at Glasgow Warriors before both moving on.
Hogg said: “Finn is an absolutely unbelievable talent and I think at this minute he is one of the best 10s in the world
“I know how Finn plays, I know that he’s a world-class talent. I think he has got the ability to change the game in a heartbeat.
“For me, he is one of the most naturally-gifted rugby players I’ve ever come across in my career.
“He has got the mentality that nothing fazes him. If he makes a mistake he gets on with his next job and it doesn’t faze him at all, which really quite bugs me when you are playing alongside him.
“Sometimes, you think he doesn’t care, where truly deep down he really does.
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“You ask him just to do his next job, just a simple basic skill, but he will say ‘stuff that’ and chuck a 30-yard pass out the back door and it will be perfect.
“He has got the ability to change a game, whether that be a chip-kick, a dummy, putting boys through space. He is a fantastic talent, and I am so happy he’s Scottish.”
Should Simmonds shade the contest between the two men in the European final at Ashton Gate on Saturday, a place in the England squad this autumn must be beckoning, and national captain Owen Farrell might even be looking over his shoulder.