Simon Shaw: 'We failed. As an England player, that's what upsets me the most'
Simon Shaw talks to Chris Hewett about the World Cup shambles, why he turned his back on Wasps for Toulon, and why he still wants to play for England at the age of 38
Toulon, perhaps the richest and certainly the most seductively situated major club in the whole of France, first asked Simon Shaw whether he might like to join them three years ago.
"I knocked them back because I still wanted to play for England, still wanted to tour with the Lions, still wanted a shot at getting myself a World Cup winner's medal I felt I'd really earned," he says. At which point, a shadow passes across the big man's beaten-up face as he reflects on that decision. Had he made a different one, he might have spared himself the unmitigated grief of the last few weeks and months.
The last remaining member of the England squad who knew what it was to play high-level rugby in the amateur era, the 38-year-old lock has had more than his fair share of disappointment over a top-class career stretching across two decades. Indeed, when it comes to career-threatening injury and international rejection, few players know the trouble he's seen. But this is a new one, even on Shaw: this idea that players can return from a humiliating World Cup challenge, talk openly and honestly to those charged with establishing exactly what went wrong under guarantee of confidentiality and then find their comments, albeit unattributed, plastered all over the media.
"Another brick in the wall," Shaw says with a sorry shake of the head. "I don't like the thought of people being singled out for criticism in a team game like rugby and I certainly don't like it when it goes public in this way. I haven't read any of this stuff, I haven't listened to anything on the subject. I just wish we could get rid of all the rubbish, all the hassle. When people read criticism over and over again, it inevitably impacts on confidence and belief, which is so important in professional sport."
Unsurprisingly under the circumstances, Shaw is relishing the opportunity to make the latest in a series of appearances for the Barbarians, against the Wallabies at Twickenham this afternoon. "It's such a liberating experience, particularly in this atmosphere," he says. "A lot of players nowadays play all their rugby with such heavy expectation on them. The thought of just getting back to enjoying rugby, of using the skills you possess as you think they should be used ... there's a lifting of a weight from the shoulders when you pull on a Baa-Baas shirt." And when he pulled on an England shirt during the slow-motion car crash of a campaign in All Black country? How did that feel?
"Look, I was in the squad when we won the World Cup in 2003, even though I didn't contribute and took no great personal pleasure from collecting my medal, and we reached the final again in 2007, when I was part of the team. Patently, they were very different experiences for everyone involved in both; so different, there is almost no comparison to be made. This recent tournament was different again, and had we done as well – had we reached the final again – would these reviews have been an issue? I don't know.
"Personally, I think the only question worth asking is whether it was a success. No, we weren't successful, and as an England player that's the thing I find incredibly upsetting. Whatever's being said out there, the only thing I really cared about was the result. Up until the quarter-final with France, we'd achieved every goal we'd set ourselves. We might not have played well, but we'd won our games. If I had an issue with selection, with not being in the starting line-up when I thought I could have had an impact against the French, that was an individual thing. The fact was, we'd reached the knockout stage and given ourselves a chance. We didn't take that chance, so we failed."
And so it is that he has linked up with Toulon now – a little late for comfort perhaps, but in time, just about, to test what is left of the best of himself in the rough, rugged, endlessly fascinating environment of the French Top 14 championship. Philippe Saint-André, the coach who showed the initial interest, is no longer in charge down there on the shores of the Mediterranean: instead, Shaw finds himself at the beck and call of Bernard Laporte, every bit as demanding a boss as Saint-André, if not more. "He's an interesting one, is Bernard," the Englishman acknowledges with a smile. "I don't think it will be one of those quiet, comfortable seasons where nothing much happens."
The move might not have happened at all. At one stage during the summer, Shaw was close to ending his 14-year association with Wasps and joining Bath, but the notion of leaving London for more of the same halfway along the M4 did not have his family falling over themselves with excitement. "If I'd joined, I'd have been commuting," he says. "My wife made that very clear." Then, shortly before leaving for New Zealand in August, he applied his thumbprint to a new one-year deal at Adams Park, where the Welsh coaches David Young and Paul Turner had taken up residence. So what happened?
"I'd had a few approaches from various people before the World Cup, there'd been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, and it wasn't before the day I flew out with England that I put pen to paper with Wasps," he says. "It was very much a last-minute thing. And when I got back from the tournament and did my first week's training, nothing felt right about the decision I'd made. It seemed to me that a new generation was in place at the club, that my generation had gone. I felt as though I knew about two people, and it shouldn't be like that when you've spent such a large part of your career in one place.
"Basically, I just wasn't there emotionally any more. I spoke to Dai Young, one to one, and said: 'Sorry, but this isn't what I want at this stage of my career.' I also spoke to Mark Rigby, the chairman. Both of them were very respectful, which helped. I didn't want to stay in the Premiership – I was much more interested in a complete change of lifestyle – so when I heard on the grapevine that Toulon might be interested in me as what they call a 'medical joker', someone they could add to the squad to cover for injuries, it set me thinking. I watched a couple of games, realised immediately what a fantastic environment it was and that was that."
He has yet to play for his new club – "I was particularly keen to accept this invitation from the Barbarians because I don't know what might lay ahead and it might be the last chance I get to play at Twickenham" – but is available for next weekend's intriguing little rumble with Toulouse at Stade Felix-Mayol. Is that it, then? Is England rugby in particular, not to mention English rugby in general, now in the past tense?
"If you're asking me whether I've retired from international rugby, the answer is no," he says, adding that he is perfectly aware of the edict from Twickenham that foreign-based players are very unlikely to be considered for red-rose duty. "If the rules stop me playing for England, or if the powers that be decide for whatever reason that I'm no longer an England candidate, I'll have to accept it. It would be nice to carry on and I think I'm still good enough to do so, but if someone takes a different view, I'll understand totally."
And the Rugby Football Union, official No 1 laughing stock of world sport? Where in God's name do they go from here? Shaw sighs. "Whatever systems have worked for England before, whatever systems work for teams in other parts of the world...that is irrelevant," he says. "What needs to happen is for someone to be appointed for the best reasons and given proper licence to pull in the people of his choosing, not just technical coaches but fitness and medical staff. We don't need to go through all this again, that's for sure."
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