England's comeback kid (aged 35)

Simon Shaw returns to the red rose fray against France tomorrow 13 years after the first of his 50 caps, writes Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online

Just recently, the Rugby Football Union managed to age Simon Shaw by nine months, which was a bit like ageing Noah. It is one of the things people at Twickenham do rather well – the governing body can be so exasperating in its many idiosyncrasies and occasional lunacies, it would leave Peter Pan himself feeling old and grey – but those responsible really should have known enough about this particular individual to publish his correct date of birth.

For one thing, those who grow to be 6ft 9in and weigh more than 20st tend to be remembered with some accuracy; for another, Shaw was hardly a stranger. He had been hanging around the England set-up for 15 years.

"How many recalls is it now?" the 35-year-old lock was asked this week, a few hours after being restored to national colours for the umpteenth time – on this occasion, ironically enough, by Martin Johnson, the man who did more than most to interrupt, intervene in and interfere with the Wasps forward's career at the very top end of the sport. "I can't recall," Shaw replied, quick as a flash. He always was a master of the instant riposte.

Shaw was first capped in 1996, but as he played some desperately hard tour matches with England in South Africa as far back as 1994, the 15-year span is a legitimate measure. It is a monumentally long stint at international level in the modern era – Gareth Rees, the Old Father Time of Canadian rugby, lasted only 13 years; Sean Fitzpatrick, the legendarily resilient All Black hooker and captain, a mere 11 – but of course, Shaw's years have been patchy and piecemeal. Injuries have been a regular source of frustration, and the very mention of certain England selectors results in a lowering of the voice and a furrowing of the brow. And then there have been the law changes. Shaw tends not to go too far down this road, dismissing rulebook tinkerings as "minor stuff", but it is perfectly reasonable to argue that he has been more compromised by rugby's legislators than any of his peers.

In 1997, he travelled to Springbok country with the British and Irish Lions as a hot favourite to partner Johnson in the senior team. He was young, he was playing the most brilliant rugby of his career and, most worryingly from the hosts' perspective, he was absolutely massive.

What happened? The International Rugby Board (IRB) sanctioned lifting at the line-out just in time for the Test series. As neither Hercules nor Superman was available to tour, Shaw was unliftable. Jeremy Davidson, a relatively lightweight lock from Ireland, was picked instead.

Something similar happened last spring when the IRB imposed a raft of Experimental Law Variations on the European game – changes that effectively neutered the maul. Shaw, acknowledged as the outstanding defensive mauler in the British game, found himself rethinking his approach for a second time. Once again he reached the right conclusions, although at the start of this current campaign, he found life far more difficult than usual.

By forcing his way back into the England team for tomorrow's Six Nations meeting with France, his sixth start against Les Bleus, he has given the lie to the notion that professional union is no place for thirtysomethings.

"I figure it this way," he said, when asked to identify the source of his continuing enthusiasm for this most physically demanding of team sports. "If I'm capable of playing Premiership rugby and Heineken Cup rugby for Wasps, I'm capable of playing international rugby for England. I really don't see the point of saying: 'I'm all right with the club stuff, but not all right for Test matches.' Top-level club matches are very, very hard. As long as I'm happy in my own mind, that I'm good enough to make the Wasps team, I'll be available for my country."

Given that he signed a two-year extension to his club contract a few days ago, he clearly intends to stick around until the end of the 2010-11 season, which leads pretty much directly into the seventh World Cup, in New Zealand. Shaw, who hardened himself up in his late teens by playing club rugby in Otago – the very heart of rucking country – has had his moments in the Land of the Long White Cloud, not all of them sunny. He was sent off, utterly ridiculously (and, as it turned out, illicitly) during an England Test in Auckland in 2004, and it would not be the least amusing thing ever seen on a rugby field if he revenged himself on the All Black fraternity on the grandest stage in the game.

In truth, he is not the vengeful type; indeed, during his recent testimonial season, the great and good of English rugby – the Johnsons, the Clive Woodwards, the Lawrence Dallaglios – were united in voicing their respect for his innate sense of sportsmanship.

He is, however, piercingly honest. In 2003, when Woodward and Johnson coached and captained England to World Cup glory in Australia, he played next to no active part in the tournament, and openly admits he would rather not have been awarded a winner's medal. "I've stashed the thing away somewhere," he says, when asked about it now. When England defended the title in 2007, he played in six of the seven games. His runners-up gong is also in a drawer somewhere, although he values it more.

He is equally candid in his appraisal of his season's work to date. Having played through the 2008 Six Nations under Brian Ashton, he was promptly marginalised by Johnson, the new boss, for last autumn's four-match international programme at Twickenham, managing only one appearance off the bench against a rampant and record-breaking Springbok outfit.

Since Johnson was – during his playing days – by dint of his own greatness, solely responsible for costing Shaw at least 50 caps, a lesser mortal might have considered this one insult too many.

"The fact of the matter is that my form during the autumn was poor," Shaw admitted. "There were a few injury concerns, and largely as a result of those, I didn't start the season particularly well, to the extent that I really didn't feel I deserved a place in the England squad, even though I was picked.

"I've had my share of bad luck with injuries, and I know how the doubts can creep in when you're struggling for fitness. As a result of those doubts, you find yourself trying too hard – trying to force things, instead of letting them come naturally. Then you start wondering whether you can take the pace any more."

So how did he turn it around, to the extent that he is now first pick for England again, at the expense of the highly athletic, considerably younger Nick Kennedy of London Irish? "There was nothing mindblowing about it," he responded. "You don't get to play international sport if you don't have a level of inner confidence, and once it leaves you for good, you might as well pack it in. I didn't think it had gone, so it was a matter of rediscovering it and tapping back into it. Things have gone better for me in recent months, and I'm eager to test myself again in an England shirt."

This time last year, Shaw was wondering whether he had had it with English rugby – not just at Test level, but at Premiership level too. He knew his close friend Fraser Waters, one of the more undervalued players in the annals of the professional game, was heading off to Italy for a spell of backwater bliss amid the art and architecture, and was tempted to follow suit. "It had always been in my mind to spend a couple of years there, for lifestyle reasons as much as anything else," he acknowledged.

"But I spoke with Fraser after he arrived and he confirmed what I guess I always knew: that the rugby was at a far lower level, along with the medical back-up, the facilities and all the rest of it. Did I want to play somewhere offering rugby light years behind the stuff I was playing here at home? In the end, I decided I didn't want to spend my last years not enjoying my sport."

After all he has suffered in the course of a long career, it is good to see him enjoying himself now. The mind drifts back to one of his early performances in senior rugby, for Bristol against Llanelli at Stradey Park on a rainswept night in the early 1990s. If Bristol were less than accomplished, Shaw was more than spectacular. "I'll tell you something," said Elwyn Price, the West Country club's talent-spotter supreme. "That kid will play more games for England than he'll ever play for us." Price knew virtually all the things worth knowing about rugby, but even he didn't see Johnson coming – or the legalisation of line-out lifting, or the end of the maul. He knew Shaw was special, though. And on that score, he wasn't wrong.

Shaw success: What became of Simon's first red rose team-mates?

*Simon Shaw made his England debut in a 54-21 victory over Italy in November 1996. This was the team:

Tim Stimpson (Now 35 years old)

Retired two years ago; divides time between coaching at Nottingham Rugby Club and business development.

Jon Sleightholme (36)

Works in business, assisting rugby professionals plan future careers. Also president of charity Autism Concern.

Will Carling (43)

Worked in TV punditry before founding corporate hospitality company. Set up the rugby social networking site Rucku and is an avid user of Twitter.

Phil De Glanville (Captain, 40)

Competed in BBC's Superstars programme and now works as a regional member of Sport England. Coached England XV in charity match.

Adedayo Adebayo (38)

Retired in 2002; now CEO of Premier Lifestyle, a corporate hospitality company.

Mike Catt (37)

Continues to enjoy twilight of career, playing impressively in London Irish's chase for honours this season.

Andy Gomarsall (34)

Another team member still playing, has played 10 games for Harlequins, though dislodged by Danny Care.

Chris Sheasby (42)

Now the player-coach at South-west regional side Bracknell. He moved there after a coaching stint at Staines RFC.

Lawrence Dallaglio (36)

Now BBC commentator and pundit. Also heavily involved in charity work.

Tim Rodber (39)

Currently works for business management company Williams Lee.

Martin Johnson (39)

Became England manager last April but has won only two of seven games.

Jason Leonard (40)

Works on RFU Professional Game Board, overseeing development of elite rugby.

Mark Regan (37)

Has announced retirement for end of season, with 46 caps won.

Graham Rowntree (37)

Working under Martin Johnson with England as a scrummaging coach.

Ciaran McCauley