Rugby Union: Invisible man turns Wasps eye-catcher

Chris Hewett talks to the awesome lock whose rediscovered sting could prove the end of Sale's Twickenham dream today
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The Independent Online
IT WAS, without doubt, one of the more remarkable rugby achievements of the century. Regardless of the fact that he tipped the scales at 21st - "one at a time, please," came the anguished cry from a chorus of creaking speak-your-weight machines - and stood 6ft 9in in his size umpteen socks, Simon Shaw contrived to make himself invisible for the first three months of a Wasps career specifically designed to keep him in the public eye.

And how he paid for his subterranean profile. Clive Woodward and the Club England hierarchy made no serious attempt to track down the most explosively athletic lock forward of his generation; rather, they turned to Garath Archer, an old team-mate at Bristol, and fell in love with the Geordie's unsophisticated, teak-hard brand of no nonsense aggression.

By the end of last autumn's four-Test Sanza series, Danny Grewcock had also secured a place in Woodward's affections, and with Martin Johnson unchallengeable as the foreman of the Red Rose engine room, Shaw had completed a depressing journey from hero to zero, from top of the world to bottom of the scrapheap.

He took the precaution of arming himself with a return ticket, however, and he is now well on the road back to fame and fortune. Almost without warning, he has hit a purple patch of club form and his colleagues at Wasps confidently expect him to produce a decisive performance in this afternoon's Tetley's Bitter Cup semi-final with Sale. What is more, Johnson's recurring groin problems may well free up a place on England's summer tour of the southern hemisphere. Suddenly, next year's World Cup is back on the Shaw agenda in capital letters.

Some of the 24-year-old Shaw's recent rugby has been on the stratospheric side of top-notch - "we've turned in a fair bit of rubbish on occasions, but Shawsy is bang on his game," agrees Lawrence Dallaglio, the Wasps and England captain - and any second row capable of catching a wing as quick as Gloucester's Brian Johnson from behind has plenty going for him. Certainly, the Wasps back room staff are talking up his chances of a representative recall.

"I couldn't be more delighted with his progress," said Rob Smith, the Wasps and England A coach, this week. "Any player takes time to settle at a new club and Simon was no different after his move here from Bristol. There were fitness problems, too, and I think we all appreciate now that changes in the line-out laws made life difficult for him. A 21-stoner is pretty valuable in a jungle, but he's bloody hard to lift. The fact that Simon has shed two stones - and it had to be two stones of muscle bulk, because he carries very little body fat - proves just how determined he is to get back."

Rather like the ancient walls of Jericho, Shaw came tumbling down just when he seemed at his most impregnable. A fixture in Jack Rowell's England side and an automatic choice for the Lions' squad, he was a white-hot favourite to partner Johnson in the series with the Springboks. God was in his rugby heaven and all was right with the world. Until, that is, Jeremy Davidson of Ireland steamed up on the rails and carried on galloping all the way into the Test team.

"What happened to me on the Lions tour hit me for six, to be honest with you," Shaw said. "I've never really spoken about it in public, but I felt there was an element of scapegoating when it came to the Test selection and it just so happened that I was in the wrong place, or the wrong side, at the wrong time. I played in most of the hard games leading up to the Tests - Western Province, Northern Transvaal, Natal - and I was happy with my form, but Jerry was also playing extremely well in a midweek side that was scrummaging more effectively and the selectors went for him.

"Funnily enough, I played the game of my life against Free State between the first and second Tests, but by then it was too late to alter anything. That's not to say the tour wasn't a fantastic experience, because it was. But it dawned on me during those weeks in South Africa that things had changed pretty radically and that I would have to adapt my game to make up the lost ground."

That root and branch reconstruction work was interrupted by a recurrence of the ankle trouble that has plagued Shaw since he first shredded tendons and ligaments by the dozen during Bristol's ill-fated tour match with Transvaal in 1995.

"I'll always have problems with the ankle," he says, wincing at the merest thought of an injury that left his right foot at 180 degrees to his leg and the rest of a gnarled Bristol pack feeling physically sick and emotionally shattered at the sight and extent of the damage.

"Like any new boy, I was expected to earn a stripe or two in the Wasps second team at the start of the season, so I played on a rutted pitch at Sudbury, turned the ankle and that was that for a couple of months. But there were problems of adjustment as well. I'd spent the whole of my senior career at Bristol and it took time to feel a part of what Wasps were all about.

"Initially, I wasn't sure what was expected of me. I concentrated on getting involved in the loose, but I kept myself too wide in defence and failed to register the tackle counts the Wasps coaches were used to. Together with my fitness problems, it made first-team selection a bit of a struggle for a while and gave England every excuse to ignore me.

"When I started to miss out on England A games, I really was concerned. I was desperate to stay involved and although the selectors tried to reassure me by saying 'Look, we've seen you play at Test level and we know what you can do, so it makes more sense for us to look at a few other people', it was a bad time. In the end, what national coach is going to pick a player who isn't playing for his club?

"Now I understand exactly what Wasps want from me, I feel much happier. I'm perfectly comfortable at just under 19 stones, my tackle count is up into double figures and over the last couple of months, I've played something approaching my best rugby. Actually, I don't think I've ever performed better at club level.

"There was never much doubt in my mind that Wasps' style of play would suit me and while the season has not gone to plan from the club's point of view as well as my own, we're in a cup semi-final with a Twickenham place on the end of it.

"I came here to win things and given that the cup is all we can win this time round, everything depends on victory over Sale."