Shaw rises above the tag of forgotten World Cup winner

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It is 4.30 in the morning in one of Brisbane's noisier 24-hour watering holes, and the atmosphere is strange indeed. A dozen Welsh players are celebrating their glorious, try-laden defeat in the quarter-final of the World Cup; a sober smattering of English opponents are mourning their cumbersome, leaden-footed victory. And hidden away in a dark corner - an unusually capacious corner, given the Himalayan size of the man it conceals - is Simon Shaw, cast into the shadows once again. He is not in the best of moods.

It is 4.30 in the morning in one of Brisbane's noisier 24-hour watering holes, and the atmosphere is strange indeed. A dozen Welsh players are celebrating their glorious, try-laden defeat in the quarter-final of the World Cup; a sober smattering of English opponents are mourning their cumbersome, leaden-footed victory. And hidden away in a dark corner - an unusually capacious corner, given the Himalayan size of the man it conceals - is Simon Shaw, cast into the shadows once again. He is not in the best of moods.

Shaw is a mild-mannered sort, unfailingly approachable and quick to laugh. There is precious little laughter here, though. The 31st man in England's 30-man World Cup squad, he had been cruelly rejected by Clive Woodward when the red-rose coach made his initial cut, only to be summoned to Wallaby country when Danny Grewcock, his arch-rival from Bath, broke a hand during the 100-point pool victory over Uruguay. During the plane trip, he feared he might spend the next three weeks watching other people play rugby. Now, he knew as much.

He did not vent his spleen that night - Shaw has always been a paragon of quiet diplomacy - but five months after the event, he is willing to talk. "Yes, I have a World Cup winners' medal, which is something an awful lot of players do not have, and will never have," he said this week. "But it would mean a hell of a lot more to me had I actually set foot on the field and taken part in a game. Two minutes would have been enough. But I didn't get two minutes, and that was hugely frustrating. I felt, and still feel, that there was an opportunity for me in that game against Wales, because Martin Johnson had taken a knock and was clearly struggling in the last 20 minutes. It didn't happen, though. Rightly or wrongly, I took it as a kick in the teeth.

"You get over it, of course, because you'd go crazy if you let it get to you indefinitely. When you speak to colleagues who have been dropped or ignored or injured at the wrong time, or who never seem to get close to England selection no matter how well they play, you realise you're not alone. You square everything in your head and get on with your job. My job is playing rugby for Wasps, and I love every minute of it." And Wasps love every millimetre of Shaw, who has plenty of millimetres to offer.

Born in Nairobi and raised in Spain, he was studying at Godalming Sixth Form College in Surrey when the national colts selectors realised they could use a 6ft 9in teenager in their second row. By the time Shaw surfaced at Bristol, he was listed as 6ft 10in; his line-out partnership with the elasticated Andy Blackmore was the talk of the town and before he knew it Jack Rowell was calling him into the firing line for the tour of South Africa in 1994 - by some distance the most violent in living memory.

These days, Shaw is said to be a mere 6ft 8in and is, therefore, the first sportsman in history to shrink as he approaches his prime. Some things about him are unchanging, however. For instance, he remains the most naturally gifted footballing lock in Europe. None of his peers and rivals - not Grewcock, not Johnson, not Ben Kay or Steve Borthwick; not Fabien Pelous or Scott Murray or Paul O'Connell - seem quite as comfortable on the ball in exposed areas of the pitch, where a single handling error might set a team back seven points. Judged purely on the skill factor, Shaw is in John Eales territory.

But there is also the line-out to consider, and the line-out has stripped Shaw bare over the last seven years. It started when the Lions visited South Africa in 1997. Lifting had only recently been legalised, and the tourists quickly discovered that Jeremy Davidson of Ireland - tall and athletic, but a good deal lighter than Shaw - was easier on the biceps than the massive Englishman. Shaw played some stunning rugby on that trip; his performance against the Free State in Bloemfontein bordered on the sublime. He did not, however, play a Test.

And so it has continued. "Simon is superb," say the England coaches, ad nauseum, "but we must guarantee our line-out ball." So they prefer Grewcock (nastier than Shaw) and Kay (more flexible), with Borthwick (a better picker of opposition line-out pockets) as first reserve. It is not a policy that impresses everyone. Indeed, Lawrence Dallaglio, a long-time colleague of Shaw's at Wasps, risked an insubordination charge from Woodward by publicly describing his clubmate's absence from the national team as "a mystery". England captains question selection policy at their peril. This, it seems, is a cause for which Dallaglio is willing to place his head on the block.

Tomorrow, Wasps take on Gloucester in the biggest English club game of the season to date - a Heineken Cup quarter-final before a sell-out crowd at the Causeway Stadium in High Wycombe. Gloucester are strong in the line-out; they have the aggressive Adam Eustace at the front and the spring-heeled Alex Brown in the middle. No one seriously expects Shaw to miss out completely on this summer's three-Test tour of New Zealand and Australia, but a ball-winning performance this weekend would push him much closer to England's starting line-up.

"My size certainly affected things when line-out lifting first came in," he admitted, "but that was a fair old time ago, and I know I've adapted my game to fit the realities of today's rugby. I really don't think the line-out argument is as relevant as it was. But you get tagged, don't you? When I get an opportunity to play for England, it's as if I'm coached out of the line-out thing altogether. We tend to use options that don't involve me, and when they go wrong, the fingers point in my direction. There is a good deal of rubbish spoken about this, unfortunately. Against Ireland last month, we had what many people consider the best line-out forwards in England in the second row (Kay and Borthwick) and scarcely won a ball all day. It happens."

Nothing would delight Shaw more than a successful European campaign with Wasps, whom he joined in 1997 immediately after the personal torment of an otherwise triumphant Lions tour. The club has been a sanctuary for him, a refuge for a wounded spirit. Shaw has always placed a premium on loyalty and cameraderie - "Had the set-up been right at Bristol, I would never have moved" - and when he decided to move to London there was only one conceivable destination. "Somehow, I never quite saw myself as a Harlequin," he said with a mischievous smirk.

"To win the Heineken Cup would be massive, especially for this group of players. Many of them were here before I arrived, and the fact that so few leave tells you all you need to know about the atmosphere at the club. When you're staid and jaded and 30 like me, it's important to know that there are people here who will encourage you, who try to keep things fresh and enjoyable and who are prepared to give you the freedom to play the game that best suits you. There have been times in my career when coaches have bogged me down in statistics - all that stuff about work-rate and tackle-counts and how many rucks you hit. It's not like that here. I make my tackles and hit my rucks, but I also get to play the wide-ranging rugby I've always enjoyed."

Does England still mean something, after the knock-backs and let-downs and bitter disappointments? "England is not my choice, is it?" he replied. "I think I'm playing pretty well. If that isn't good enough for the selectors, then I at least have the consolation of knowing that I'm doing my bit for Wasps. It's not 100 per cent satisfying, but it's not bad. And yes, I still want to play for my country. We all grumble when we're on the fringes of the side and we get called down to a non-contact session at the team headquarters, just to make up the numbers on a wet Tuesday afternoon. But if that's what it takes to get picked, then I'll be there, no matter how hard it's raining. There are worse things in life."

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