Bryan Habana, the spectacular Springbok wing who almost beat a cheetah in a foot race – yes, really – before topping the try chart at last year's World Cup, has probably forgotten the events that took place in Bloemfontein some 10 months ago. There, he was hunted down from behind by an opponent weakened by a virus so mysterious that it has never been satisfactorily diagnosed by the massed ranks of the medical profession. Brian Ashton certainly forgot. Or to put it more accurately, he chose not to remember.
The player in question, James Simpson-Daniel of Gloucester, also performed a trick or two in attack on that visit to the capital of the Free State: indeed, he crossed the South African line for a nice little five-pointer. A fat lot of good it did him. When Ashton, the England coach, brought together 47 players to start preparations for the global gathering in France, including umpteen outside backs, the double-barrelled double-shuffler from Kingsholm was not among them. Why? Because God-given talent was considered less important than brute resilience.
"How can I pick a bloke for a World Cup tournament when he can't string two games together?" asked Ashton at the end of the short trip to the high veld, much of which Simpson-Daniel had spent in the sick bay. (After contributing so handsomely off the bench in Bloem, he missed the second and final match in Pretoria with a viral relapse). In fairness to the individual under discussion, he was not alone in feeling grotty: virtually everyone in the squad copped it, to a greater or lesser degree. But Simpson-Daniel had a long history of illness and injury, and it tipped the balance against him.
It took him until last month to play his way back into Ashton's favours, but having done so he was set fair for a starting place against Ireland in the final round of Six Nations matches. What happened? You guessed it. He broke down again, this time with an ankle injury so minor it barely had a name. Presumably, the only thing that stopped Simpson-Daniel climbing the nearest wall was the fear of falling off and hurting something else.
"Brian hadn't told me I'd be playing against Ireland, but I was happy to be in his thoughts," he said. "When I found I couldn't train, I was pretty disappointed. I knew immediately that my chance had gone. I'm not one of those people with 40 or 50 caps who are so familiar to the coaches that they'll give them all the time they need to get fit. If I was going to play against Ireland, I'd have had to be out there working in every session, making a case for myself. The decision was made early, so I pushed off to watch the racing at the Cheltenham Festival. When I returned to the club, they accused me of suffering from 'Gold Cup ankle'."
This evening, when Munster come to town for a Heineken Cup quarter-final widely talked of as the biggest occasion in Gloucester's recent history, Simpson-Daniel plans to make someone else suffer for once. Back in the pink after a start to the campaign he himself felt was below-par, he is both prolific in his scoring – his rate is up to a try every couple of games – and creative in opening doors for others. Once again, he is being labelled the most imaginative attacking back in English rugby; once again, the dead weight of expectation is upon him.
Might his unusually quiet early-season efforts have had something to do with the World Cup setback? After all, that tournament was being played at the precise time Simpson-Daniel was struggling for form. "If it was a reaction to the World Cup thing, I wasn't aware of it," he said. "I've had enough disappointments in my career not to let them affect me. It was simply a case of making more mistakes than I was used to making – three or four little errors in a game, rather than just the one. I couldn't quite understand why it was happening, given that the sun was shining and the conditions were good – just the way I like it. But the coaching staff here helped me through, as always, and I'm reasonably satisfied with my form now. If the season ended tomorrow, I'd probably say I was happy with life. Or at least, not angry."
Simpson-Daniel was in his sporting swaddling clothes when he last experienced a Heineken match on this scale: a tight semi-final with Leicester, the eventual champions, at Vicarage Road in 2001. "I was a young pup, still a teenager and not long out of school," he said. "I'm not sure I really understood where I was on that occasion, that I appreciated how important the game was to the club. I'd had the good fortune to play in a successful schools side, and while schoolboy rugby is entirely different to the grown-up version I'd been used to playing in semi-finals and finals. I suppose I thought: 'Win or lose today, there'll be more of these matches down the road.' Now, at 25 going on 35, I fully understand what it takes for a team to get to games like this one."
There have been previous European games against Munster over the last half-dozen seasons: four, to be precise, with the split at two wins apiece. But one fixture dominates the popular memory. In 2003, Gloucester travelled to Limerick with the swagger of Premiership leaders about them, and were considered certain to qualify for the last eight at their hosts' expense, being miles ahead on points difference. Somehow, Munster won 33-6, scoring and converting the crucial try at the last knockings to secure the knockout place for themselves.
"They still call it the 'Miracle Match' over there, but I see it as one of the worst games I've ever experienced in terms of the embarrassment factor," Simpson-Daniel said. "Does it still hurt me? I don't lose sleep over it, but I can't forget it, more's the pity. To blow the match in the way we blew it took ... well, it was pretty upsetting. I'm glad we're at Kingsholm for this one. Like Thomond Park in Limerick, the ground generates a fantastic atmosphere, with the crowd right on top of the players. But this is our home, not theirs. I just hope the Gloucester people bought their tickets early, because the Irish supporters are never slow in getting their hands on a few.
"Munster look really strong, as usual. That red jersey of theirs seems to give them something extra, and whatever that something extra is, most teams are envious of it. When the draw was made we were playing well enough to be considered slight favourites or, at the very least, 50-50 shots to win the game. But they've come on strong recently, while we've seen some results slip away. We're probably the underdogs now, even though we have them at our place."
Not so long ago, the Irish province had a well-earned reputation for playing successful rugby without actually playing any ... er ... rugby. Since when, they have added some southern hemisphere pizzazz to their back division, in the shape of two centres formed in New Zealand, Lifeimi Mafi and Rua Tipoki, and, last but by no means least, the All Black wing Doug Howlett. "The last time I played against Howlett was for England in Dunedin [in 2004], and we lost by plenty," Simpson-Daniel said. "That's another game I'd put a line through if I could."
Yet he could be back down there in New Zealand as early as June if things go well with Gloucester from here on in. Does he think about the fact that a strong performance today could put him on the plane? "It's definitely the type of game people will be watching: coaches, selectors, influential rugby people right across Europe," he said. "But I won't go into it thinking, 'If I play well here, someone important will notice.' This is all about the club. I want to do it for Gloucester.
"In my view, we won't deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Wasps or Leicester until we prove ourselves capable of winning matches likes this one. And to do that, we have to find a way of playing our game against the very best opposition. That means people putting up their hands and taking on the responsibility of making something happen. I'm prepared to do that, partly because I don't want to hide behind others and partly because a player of my size – I'm not the biggest, as everyone knows – has to do things differently to make an impact.
"I've promised myself I'll have a go. I'm not talking about doing daft things, like chancing it from my own line with the scores level and the clock ticking down, but I want us to be willing to play. We've done our analysis on what Munster do, we've worked out how to defend against it and we've trained accordingly. But most of our training has been focused on what we want to do when we have the ball, and that's how it should be.
"This is the pivotal game in our season, one that will rub off on every other game we play. My biggest fear is sitting down in the dressing room afterwards and saying: 'God, why didn't I do this or that when I had the chance?'"Reuse content