James Simpson-Daniel: Is there still room for a dash of grace amid the grunting?

An unfulfilled wing turns to central casting in search of glory. Hugh Godwin talks to a player determined to end the frustrations
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The Independent Online

The night before the first of the autumn internationals last November, James Simpson-Daniel received a telephone call from the England coach, Andy Robinson. "He was asking me how I was getting on, and wishing me luck for the game. He didn't have to do that, going into a big Test match against Australia. It gives you a lift you don't quite expect. He's been really good that way."

The obvious drawback from Simpson-Daniel's point of view was that he was in Leicester at the time, preparing for a Premiership match the next day with his club, Gloucester. The England centres chosen to do duty in the main event at Twickenham - as they would be to face the All Blacks the following week - were Mike Tindall and Jamie Noon. "I was absolutely gutted, really disappointed," says Simpson-Daniel, which sounds a bit more like it.

Though some may argue otherwise, international selection remains the gold standard in most players' minds, Simpson-Daniel's included. He did, of course, get his chance in the third of the three Tests, against Samoa. And what happened then?

A look of genuine angst appears across his 23-year-old features. "It might just sound like I'm playing the same old record. I took a freak bang from someone's head on to my hip and it seized up immediately. It happened on 38 minutes and I came off at half-time without having done anything much. To be honest, I get these chances..." and the sentence trails off.

The Simpson-Daniel tale is of talent intertwined with the misfortune of illness and injury, opportunity intermittently knocking and getting knocked out. A tale bound up, too, in the wider argument over whether English rugby, with its interminable season and obsession with defeating the southern hemisphere, stifles rather than nurtures its brightest prospects.

Take last weekend, for example. "I came off after Glouc-ester beat Leeds and went home that night more pleased with my defence than my attack," says Simpson-Daniel. He had scored two tries, but he considered them "run-ins". Six seasons into his senior career - today he faces Saracens at Watford, where he played a Heineken Cup semi-final for Gloucester as an 18-year-old - he appears to rate the snuffing-out of the opposition alongside anything he can do to hurt them on the offensive.

"Phil Larder, the England defence coach, says he thinks my defence has been good. If I was ticking all the boxes in my game I would be able to tick the defensive one, whereas five years ago that would have been a question mark I'd write in."

But by a man's works shall ye know him, and against Leeds there was a behind-the-back pass to change the attacking angle that was pure Simpson-Daniel. It is for his creativity and ingen-uity that the grunt-loving denizens of Gloucester's Shed have taken him to their hearts, hyphen and all. The club's head coach, Dean Ryan, who would rather stick pins in his eyes than pander to pretty rugby, has recently brought him in from the wing to his favoured position at outside-centre.

Still, doubts remain over Simpson-Daniel's suitability for the national team. He claims not even to be certain to be in the next England squad to be named on Wednesday week in preparation for the Six Nations' Championship. A "soft tackle" he missed on Joe Rokocoko in Dunedin during England's tour to New Zealand in 2004 sticks in his memory like an endorsement on a driving licence. But didn't he fan the first flames of his fame by running around Jonah Lomu in an England-Barbarians match? Isn't everyone entitled to a missed tackle?

This is where the "same old record" of Simpson-Daniel's Test experiences comes in. From an ankle (Commonwealth Games 2002) to glandular fever (out for the last of the 2002 autumn Tests); from concussion and a shoulder in early 2003 to a hamstring (autumn 2004) and a shoulder again for last year's Six Nations: you name it, Simpson-Daniel's been waylaid by it. The Samoan mishap was just the latest. "I've had eight caps now," he says. "Two of them in a row at the beginning and then they've been dotted all around. I'm desperate to have a decent game for England. I've not played the way I want to. My best game was against Australia [in 2002], my second cap. It's whether the coaches, Robbo and Joe [Lydon, the backs coach], have the confidence to keep me with the squad."

And the answer to that last query will surely help define the remainder of Robinson's term in office, up to the World Cup in 2007. The 16 months to date have not been marked by a flourishing attack. Arguably, Robinson has merely continued the conservative outlook deployed by Clive Woodward to win the 2003 World Cup, when Simpson-Daniel was among the final five players cut from the squad.

Brian Ashton, the doyen of English backs coaching newly restored to Bath after working with the National Academy, insists England must embrace a wider, more multi-faceted style to compete with the very best. The incumbent full-back, Josh Lewsey, says: "I don't think you're going to win the next World Cup without playing a wide, expansive game, simple as that."

The inability of the England backs to prise apart a 13-man New Zealand in November was painful to watch. Possibly the worst set move ever seen at Twickenham was perpetrated against Samoa, with the backs split behind a scrum and Tindall kicking ahead to no one in particular. "Joe and Robbo want to play the expansive game," says Simpson-Daniel. "They want us to have fun and enjoy it. But we have to get our basics right - the bits people don't realise, the rucking and the ball retention."

Tindall, of course, is also Simpson-Daniel's centre partner at Gloucester. It was the club's idea - endorsed by Robinson rather than, as received wisdom has it, ordered by him - and Simpson-Daniel is glad of the run in the midfield Ryan is currently giving him. "The good thing is that me and 'Tins' are both quite easy. If we end up falling in defence with me inside him, we can do that. In attack we're very confident switching around and running off each other. With England, the competition is very strong: Jamie Noon, Ollie Smith, Tins, Stewie Abbott - but, yes, in an ideal world I'd love to have a run of games. The more you play with players the more you gel. That's certainly the advantage me and Tins are getting at Gloucester at the moment."

Twickenham could do with a lift, and Simpson-Daniel can provide it. Possessed of good looks and an easy-going demeanour, he has maintained a long-term, long-distance relationship with his girlfriend, Lucy, flitting between his home in Cheltenham and hers in Newcastle and now London. He is the face of Cheltenham's 16-24 Club, aimed at attracting a younger crowd to the races.

He owns a bull mastiff, and the story behind the dog's name, Winnie, almost gets lost in a forest of light-hearted nicknames. "I used to call Gommers [Andy Gomarsall, the ex-Gloucester scrum-half] 'Cuthbert' because I thought he was quite posh. And he called me 'Dibble' " - think firemen's names in Trumpton - "...and I ended up calling him 'Winifred' and he said, 'Why not call your dog Winnie?' I'm getting up three hours early to chill out with her, take her for runs."

Simpson-Daniel belongs to a bulldog breed of four rugby-playing brothers from Yarm, near Middlesbrough. The eldest, Chris, made it to the Premiership but retired early with knee injuries and is running his father's security business in Yorkshire. Next in line after James is Mark, a scrum-half, who was taken on by Sale but is now in National League One with Newbury, and then there's 16-year-old Charlie. "He wants to be a rugby player but the whole family is on at him not to forget his studies," says James, who in his own schooldays at Sedbergh used to make half-term visits to point-to-points or Wetherby races. He has given up on Leitrim Rock, the horse he co-owned with his father - "Its best finish was a photo for second in a poor race" - but remains a budding Sheikh Mohammed. "I'd look at getting a horse from young. It's that whole excitement of 'What if it's a really good one?' You get your Lottery ticket and you just never know."

It will be fascinating to see whether the England syndicate will ever clear the final hurdle with James Simpson-Daniel.

Life & Times

NAME: James David Simpson-Daniel.

BORN: 30 May 1982, North Tees.

NICKNAME: Sinbad.

VITAL STATISTICS: 6ft, 13st 5lb.

POSITION: Utility back.

JUNIOR HONOURS: Sedbergh School, Cumbria; Yorkshire U-18s, North-east U-18s.

CLUB CAREER: Gloucester, 89 matches, 43 tries; debut 2001.

INTERNATIONAL CAREER: England, 8 caps, 1 try; debut 4 November 2002 v New Zealand, Twickenham.

HIGHLIGHTS: March 2002: scored hat-trick to help England Sevens win final in Hong Kong; May 2002: hat-trick in first club match back; then beat Jonah Lomu to score for England against Barbarians.

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