With the Rugby World Cup Final between England and South Africa set to kick off tomorrow, we decided to sit down with a man who knows what it’s like to play in one. Simon Shaw was a starter for the team in white the last time the two sides met in the showpiece event 12 years ago, a match won by the Springboks 15-6. Four years earlier the 6ft 8in Kenyan-born former lock had been part of the English squad that brought home the trophy from Australia, though didn’t play in the final.
This Saturday he will be watching the action from the stands hoping for a different outcome to 2007. The oldest ever debutant for the British and Irish Lions and one of the tallest players to have ever represented his country, he gave us his thoughts on Japan, the two finalists, and the tournament so far. We also had a look back at some of the highlights from his own distinguished career.
How impressed have you been with England and South Africa up until now?
I think it’s the most skillful group of English players to have ever put on the shirt and I say that having been part of the squad in 2003. It’s remarkable when you think how far they’ve come since the last tournament (England exited at the group stages). This team didn’t really need to get out of second gear until the quarter-finals. Since then, we’ve seen them really push on. I questioned whether they would have enough experience, yet so far, they’ve come through every challenge brilliantly. The side is extraordinarily confident right now.
South Africa haven’t really surprised anyone with the way they’ve played. They are an extremely powerful team that has always had a dominant and abrasive pack. That’s not changed. What has changed from years ago is that rather than being focused on their backs, their power game is now based more around their forward players who exhaust the opposition with relentless carries. They still have some fantastic backs, the question is, are they seeing enough of the ball?
What players should we be looking out for on Saturday?
Cheslin Kolbe (who was out injured for the Wales semi-final) is a very exciting player to watch. (Willie) Le Roux and (Damian) de Allende have also impressed. Faf (de Klerk) at scrum-half is an interesting one. He’s one of those players that divides opinion, particularly in South Africa. He’s always dangerous around the ruck, though, many fans would like (Handre) Pollard to have the ball more and quicker.
For England, there have been several candidates for player of the tournament. The pack has performed very well and doesn’t look like it’s going to give an inch. Sam Underhill and Tom Curry as a partnership have been phenomenal. I think Eddie Jones calls them the Kamikaze Kids, they just fly about everywhere clattering anything in their way. I’ve been impressed every time I’ve seen them. You can almost feel the bruising they’re taking just watching. They are seriously rapid, scampering around the pitch like madmen.
What other players have stood out for you in the World Cup?
The Japanese wingers (Kotaro Matsushima, Kenki Fukuoka and Lomano Lemeki) were electrifying. Jake Polledri for Italy was unstoppable with the ball in hand, nobody seemed to be able to tackle him. France’s Romain Ntamack looked a constant threat, not only when he was running with the ball, but with his array of passing and kicking. While I don’t want to compare him to Beauden Barrett, his potential is huge.
Personally, I thought it was a shame Fiji didn’t fare a bit better because it would have been great to have seen more of Semi Radradra and Josua Tuisova. There’s nothing better than watching those two fly down the wing unless you’re one of the defenders that has to face them!
As a tournament do you think it’s lived up to expectations?
Absolutely. It’s been amazing. Not just because of the hosts who delivered well beyond what people thought they would, but, just in general, I think it’s had a little bit of everything. There have been upsets, tight matches, you had that huge encounter at the start between New Zealand and South Africa and some excellent knockout games.
The highlight, though, was arguably that Japan victory over Scotland. I wasn’t at it myself but from what I’ve heard from friends, it was literally the most unbelievable atmosphere they’ve ever experienced at a Test Match.
The highlight, though, was arguably that Japan victory over Scotland.
Why do you think Japan are now able to compete against the Tier One Nations?
They understand their competitive advantage. They know they’re not going to run over teams and realize they’re not big enough to boss a game from upfront. They’ve identified their strong points and said from the get-go we’re going to keep the ball for 50 minutes when the norm is 40. They’ve gone out with that intent and lived up to it.
The slickness of their passing, the quickness of their ruck possession, people have said it’s on a par with New Zealand. All they’re missing is that extra bit of size and strength. It just shows what’s possible when you believe in your strengths and don’t focus on what you can’t do. I think it’s a good lesson for other rugby nations.
What about the other so-called Tier Two Nations?
They can make excuses as to why they’re not challenging the world’s elite such as finances or local issues, yet the fact is countries like Tonga, Samoa and Fiji, who have the size and speed, aren’t performing to their capabilities.
People talk about Japan having foreigners in their side, but the spirit within them comes from Japanese culture. It’s all about the team. Look at someone like the (Tonga-born) prop (Isileli Nakajima), who always comes off the bench in the second half. He knows his role. In other countries, you might have players feeling a little peeved at being left out and then being more individualistic in their approach to try and prove the coach wrong. You never see that with the Japanese players.
What have been your overall impressions of the country?
I was told about Japan before coming so I was expecting it to be very hospitable, however, the level of respect people have for each other and the rules has surprised me. It’s on another level. Order is being kept because citizens aren’t stepping out of line, no matter what. I think we can learn from that back home.
One of my favorite things here was a sumo tour from an ex-wrestler. He took me into a schoolboy tournament and there was this huge lad against this little guy. He was infinitely smaller, but still had complete belief in what he was doing. It was inspirational to see a kid who didn’t have all the attributes take on such a big challenge and compete with that kind of attitude. I think it summed up the spirit of the Japanese.
What would you say was the biggest challenge you faced during your career?
I ruptured my knee ligaments in 1995 and was told by surgeons that I was basically done. There would be no coming back. That was something I couldn’t just accept. When people question me or say something’s not possible, it fuels me even more. I was hell-bent on not staying in the cast for long. Six months later I was back playing again which is ridiculous considering they were talking about amputation.
I was determined not to let that one incident become the defining moment of my career. That said, in many ways, it did define me in a positive way as it armed me with a more balanced view of the game and life in general. I felt more relaxed about things after that, didn’t put too much pressure on myself, and enjoyed my career more as a result.
I was determined not to let that one incident become the defining moment of my career.
That injury ruled you out of the 1995 World Cup. You then weren’t selected in 1999, but eventually got a call up in 2003 due to Danny Grewcock’s injury. What was it like to be part of that squad?
2003 was the first World Cup that New Zealand didn’t start as the favorites. That put an extra kind of pressure on us. There was so much emphasis on England and the team delivered by stumbling over the line. It was touch-and-go, not just in the final but also against Wales and Samoa. That was testament to the desire, determination, and self-belief that squad had.
It was a side full of huge characters, many of whom were captains in their own right. I think it was that winning mentality that got them over the line in the end. I say them because even though I was in the squad from the quarter-finals, I didn’t play.
How did you feel watching the final from the bench?
It was nerve-wracking. You do all the preparations as if you are playing then you sit and watch like any other spectator. You’ve got involvement in the squad and you are part of it but you still feel like a spare part for that 80 minutes or even longer on that day. All you can do is scream your lungs off, supporting the boys.
Australia weren’t expected to be in that final, but it showed the mettle they had to get that far. It felt like two heavyweights punching each other’s lights out until one keeled over. Elton Flatley nailed his kicking for them that night. Jonny (Wilkinson), who has a stronger work ethic than anyone I know, uncharacteristically missed a couple but then hit the crucial drop-goal at the death. I enjoyed the celebrations but didn’t feel I earned the medal.
Four years later you played a big role as England reached the final again. How different was that tournament?
It was a much more relaxed World Cup. At the same time, going into it we had been described as the worst defending champions of all time so there were a lot of proud men fired up to prove people wrong. We had players like Mike Tindall, Andy Gomarsall, Phil Vickery, Martin Corry, Jonny Wilkinson, Jason Robinson, Mike Catt and myself who’d been there and got the T-shirt. We couldn’t afford to balls up.
We lost our second game 36-0 to South Africa but I thought we played quite well and went away thinking we could destroy any other pack in the tournament. By the time we got to the final, we were a lot more aligned with our thoughts and feeling confident. In the end, it wasn’t to be. Should Mark Cueto’s try have been allowed? Would it have made a difference? I guess these are things we’ll wonder for the rest of our lives.
Your performance against Australia in the quarter-finals was memorable. What do you remember about that game?
Often a match will pass you by and nothing really registers. This one was different. I absolutely loved it. I had to keep pinching myself to make sure it was really happening. Behind me, (Andrew) Sheridan was on fire and I felt completely energized as a result, like I was weightless.
Often a match will pass you by and nothing really registers. This one was different. I absolutely loved it.
I remember the Aussies getting a penalty from a ruck and they were quite gobby about it. I got up, looked around and saw everyone from the England pack smiling, thinking, “You wait.” The tables turned very quickly. I hear as many fans talk about that game in Marseille and the semi-final against France as much I hear about the 2003 final. I think because we didn’t have the weight of expectation, it was more exciting for many people.
Another game that stands out was your debut at 35 for the Lions against South Africa in 2009. How were the nerves going into that one?
I never used to get nervous before games but from the moment I got selected for that second test to the day of the match, I couldn’t sleep a wink. I was hell bent on putting a lot of demons to bed. Many people questioned my quality to stand alongside Paul O’Connell in the pack and at 35, the feeling was that I was washed up and my chance had gone. I still believed in myself, though, and wanted to prove to everyone they made a mistake not picking me earlier.
While I don’t remember much of what happened during the match it seemed to go well. I heard one newspaper gave me a 10/10 rating but I don’t think you should pay too much attention to that. Rugby’s a subjective sport. You can only deliver a strong performance if those around you play well.
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Loving being out in Japan for the @rugbyworldcupjp @rugbyworldcup It has been a truly memorable few weeks thus far. I feel incredibly privileged and I am extremely grateful for all the opportunities that have come about through my involvement in the game of Rugby. A recent such opportunity presented itself in the form of the @atlas_frc a foundation started by the Legend @jasonleonard114 The foundation funds global projects that use Rugby as a tool for social change. It may seem like a tall order but I have seen, first hand, the work of many of these projects in Kenya and more recently in India! They work, it’s as simple as that. Through the values of rugby kids living in the worst conditions you could ever imagine find hope in the form of this great game. Inclusion, empowerment, diversity, leadership, communication, health and wellbeing, self esteem, self belief, teamwork, interaction, cooperation, education, skills, the list of positive outcomes that the game can provide these children are endless. We would love your help in spreading the work of the @atlas_frc to new projects and to other parts of the Globe. @simonshawrugby are giving followers a win,win,win opportunity. By following the link https://www.atlasfrc.org/appeal/balls-for-bucks you will help fund a project, receive a rugby ball from me and make a huge difference in the lives of a great many children and give them a real hope of a brighter future!
You retired from the sport four years after that tour. What have you been doing since?
I’ve got various business interests. I backed a friend of mine who launched a group of restaurants called M Restaurants. It keeps me a little bit involved in rugby because we do corporate hospitality in and around Twickenham. On top of that, I’m involved in a couple of startups in the data industry and created my own rugby brand called Simon Shaw Rugby. It’s an e-commerce business selling rugby balls. I just felt there was a gap in the market that wasn’t being facilitated.
I also set up an online charity: inmylocker.co.uk where old kit is sold. Basically, it’s everything except for match-day shirts so it might be an old pair of Jonny Wilkinson socks from training or a jersey used for a photoshoot. It’s the kind of thing you might get at a charity auction but at more affordable prices. These are items that will hold value for fans, players can get rid of old kit from their loft, and the money goes to good causes. It’s a win-win-win situation. Another organization I’m passionate about is the Atlas Foundation started by my former teammate Jason Leonard. It uses rugby as a tool for social change and helps kids in impoverished parts of the world.
For more information about the Atlas Foundation see https://www.atlasfrc.org
Simon Shaw’s Rugby Balls can be found at simonshawrugby.com
Feature image by Mitch Gunn / Shutterstock.com