As another milestone approaches for the Wasps lock, Rugby World finds out what keeps him smiling.
Tell Simon Shaw that he will become the oldest person to play for England in a World Cup if he makes Martin Johnson’s squad for New Zealand 2011 – he will be 38 when the event kicks off, beating Paul Rendall’s appearance as a 37-year-old in 1991 – and he sighs. “I thought it might be the case but it’s not the sort of thing to brag about too much,” he says.
It’s easy to see why the veteran second-row wants to play down the ‘achievement’. The abuse he gets for his age is “relentless” and even on the day of our conversation he had been the victim of yet another prank: a newspaper article featuring a picture of an England lineout from the 1940s pinned to the locker-room wall at London Wasps, with his name scribbled underneath to suggest he’d played in that game. “It was Joe Ward without a doubt,” says Shaw. “He likes to think he’s a comedian, but he should do something more subtle.”
It’s now 14 years since Shaw made his Test debut as a 23-year-old against Italy at Twickenham, lining up alongside Johnson in the second row. Johnson is now England manager while Shaw continues to toil away on the pitch week in, week out. Suggest that the reason he keeps playing is that it’s easier than staying at home to look after his four children – aged seven to nine months – and he offers a wry smile, but the real reason for his longevity his far simpler. “I just enjoy it,” he says. “There’s no secret recipe or reason. Some people say I’ve been unlucky with injuries but I think I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to remain relatively injury-free. If I keep enjoying the game it’s a no-brainer for me; I just love being able to run around and compete.”
That last comment is telling. Shaw’s skills as a ball-carrier set him apart from many other locks, so the fact the game has speeded up this season under the new law directives has played into his hands. He’s quick to point out that he has had to adapt to many changes in the game over the years (he was playing when the points awarded for a try went up from four to five!), but does admit he enjoys attacking with the ball. “I wouldn’t say I’ve lost any pace because I didn’t have any pace to begin with,” he jokes. “When I took up the game I didn’t fit into the mould of being a second-row who won lineout ball and pushed in scrums. I thought that was a bit boring. The thing I’ve always enjoyed most is running with the ball in my hands. The law changes this year have only emphasised to everyone the need to be more positive and play a good style of rugby, open and entertaining.”
That’s certainly what New Zealand, Australia and, albeit belatedly, South Africa did during the Tri-Nations, so Shaw knows how big a task England faced with back-to-back Tests against the big three and Samoa during the last Autumn internationals. “I’m not a big fan of watching too much rugby – I do enough of that as it is. But I do know that New Zealand were outstanding and have taken the game to a new level, that Australia grew during the tournament and are getting back to where they used to be, and that South Africa are incredibly tough opposition. You always get a physical battle with Samoa, too, and to come off two Tests against two of the best sides in the world and feel the brutality of Samoa is a tough task.
“High-pressure games like the Heineken Cup set you up well for the Internationals. Last year was pretty depressing as Wasps weren’t involved so it’s great to be back playing at the top level. I love it. Each win is so vital and both sides are giving their all so you can’t look beyond that game, then you have to back it up again the next weekend. That’s what it’s going to be like for the next few weeks with the level of opposition we have.” It’s not just England’s opponents that Shaw has to be worried about either; he also faces plenty of competition just to be picked in the starting XV. Courtney Lawes and Tom Palmer got the nod for the win over Australia in June while Dave Attwood is another youngster impressing. Shaw isn’t intimidated, however; quite the opposite.
“It’s fantastic. For a while it was suggested that there were no up-and-coming second-rows and now we’ve got a whole crop of them, which is great for the game. They’re quality players and they showed throughout the summer tour that they’re ready for the big stage. They just need to continue the way they’re playing. “There’s a lot of competition and hopefully it’ll bring out the best in each of us. I’m just as keen despite the years. I was disappointed not to start the second Test in Australia, but I learnt early on never to count my chickens. Courtney got his chance and played exceptionally well. I have to accept that, keep fighting on and show the coaches I’m still capable.”
Well, as far as Johnson is concerned his former boiler-room buddy is still more than capable. He says: “Shawsy just rolls on and is one hell of an athlete. He wants the chance to go the World Cup in 2011. As long as he thinks he can do it and we think he can do it, he’ll be there.”
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