Rock of Ages, cleft for me/Let me hide myself in thee." When Wasps sent their teenaged lock Joe Launchbury out at Harlequins for a European quarter-final last weekend, they gave him a security blanket in human form by the name of Simon Shaw. "It's like going into war with your brother or father," says Leon Holden, Wasps' interim director of rugby, "because Shawsy looks after everybody. When he is in your pack, no one messes with you because Shawsy could squash you. Literally. I said to Joe: 'Mate, all you've got to do is do your job because you know Simon Shaw will do some of your stuff as well'."
The praise is typical of almost anyone who has coached or played alongside Shaw, who made his senior debut for Bristol in 1992 and is still going strong for Wasps and England a few months short of his 38th birthday. What does this dad of four make of his patriarchal role in rugby, standing shoulder to shoulder with a lad like Launchbury (20 last Tuesday), who was in nappies when Shaw first played in the top division?
"There are things about the young players that make you a bit jealous," says Shaw, who has never been shy of seeing the funny side. "The speed they play at, for one. And they don't have the baggage you have after playing for a number of years. They just play what they see and don't worry about the outcomes. I never force my opinions on them, that's not a positive way forward. If I do see something with a young player that might assist them, I'll offer the advice and it's up to them."
This sang-froid in shrugging off setbacks – even career-defining ones such as missing the cut for England's 2003 World Cup squad, though he went out as a replacement – has aided his longevity, Shaw says, and he would love it to last through to the World Cup in New Zealand this autumn. Certainly Holden, the New Zealander who was Wasps' line-out and forwards coach from 2005-09 before returning in his interim role following Tony Hanks's sacking in February, thinks Shaw should go. "Talking to other players and people who have joined Wasps from other clubs, the first thing they would look for on the Wasps team-sheet was whether Simon Shaw was playing – even when Lawrence Dallaglio was around," says Holden, who considers only the All Blacks' Brad Thorn as Shaw's equal as an uncompromising tighthead lock.
But after playing his last eight Tests from the bench – with a couple of other locks being unavailable during the Six Nations success – Shaw sounds unconvinced he will be celebrating that September birthday Down Under. England may take four second rows or three plus a back-rower who could fill in; either way, Courtney Lawes, Tom Palmer, Louis Deacon and Dave Attwood are the prime contenders. "I hope it's four but they haven't told me," says Shaw, who started in the 2007 World Cup final – his long-time rival Martin Johnson played in 2003. "The decision will be a tight one."
Shaw said last autumn he would never retire from Tests and that he needed the "carrot" of playing for England to keep the old legs churning for his club. After what he calls "a frustrating Six Nations – five minutes here, 10 minutes there, and 60 minutes in the last match [the defeat in Ireland] which wasn't ideal", he has changed his view. He can see a scenario in which he trains through the summer as part of England's 50-man squad but misses the cut, just as in 2003. "In which case," he reasons, "I wouldn't just say, 'well, sod it with Wasps'. It will have been rigorous and I will have got myself in a pretty good physical state." So he would like to play another year but appreciates that whoever is made Director of Rugby will want their say, and Wasps are not expecting to name that person until the end of the season. Holden has recommended a structure that keeps the DOR away from day-to-day coaching; Alex King, the former Wasps fly-half who has been coaching with Clermont Auvergne in France, could fit somewhere in the new hierarchy.
Shaw added a Six Nations winner's medal (his third) to the 10 he has with Wasps, including two Heineken Cups and four league titles. A monumental performance for the Lions in the Second Test in South Africa in 2009 cemented public affection for him – that and a tearful interview afterwards when he put the Lions' defeat above his realisation of the long-held dream of appearing in the starting XV.
Now this likeable warrior knows the end is nigh – "I might just fade away," he says, "or be fossilised in a wall at the training ground" – but he does not want Wasps, who have fallen from their champion heights, to go the same way. He bemoans the loss of "characters" such as fitness coaches Craig White and Paul Stridgeon. He also wants the club's exciting young English talent, that includes hooker Tom Lindsay and backs Christian Wade and Elliot Daly, to be free to flourish in today's Premiership meeting with Leeds and in next Saturday's St George's Day match against Bath at Twickenham. "The level of analysis that goes on these days, I believe too much is read into it. Knowing you are being micro-analysed can give some players a fear of failure. That is not the way to play rugby."
London Wasps v Leeds kicks off at 3pm this afternoon