My Life in Rugby: Simon Shaw – former lions, England & Wasps lock

Simon ShawIn 1994 I went on the England tour to South Africa – the first post-Apartheid tour.

That is a big highlight because it was not only my first England tour but the nature of it and what it stood for – meeting Nelson Mandela and so many things that I would never have experienced otherwise.

I was born in Kenya and hadn’t been back to Africa until then. A lot of Africans will say when you haven’t been there for a while and you land, with the sights and the smells, you feel like you’re home – it was exactly like that for me.

I had dreams and aspirations of being the longest-serving England player. I looked at Jason Leonard and thought ‘if I can do what he did, that would be amazing’.

I probed a bit and then 1995 was an absolute disaster – the sort of thing that jolts you and puts you back down to earth.

I was due to go to the World Cup but I ruptured my knee ligaments just before. That whole year was wiped out and it gave me a completely different perspective on life.

I missed out on two World Cups – 1995 I was exceptionally close and 1999 I wasn’t really given a chance.

Then in 2003, when Warren Gatland had come in at Wasps and my confidence was flying, to get left out of the squad – I just thought ‘there is no-one looking out for me’. I did go out to Australia as an injury replacement but I didn’t play a single minute.

I threw myself into my club and that year we won the double and I got Players’ Player of the Year, so I couldn’t have done much more.

It would have been the icing on the cake if we had done it the following World Cup in 2007 but it’s not a regret because we did all we could.

I also went on three Lions tours but it wasn’t until the third, in 2009, I finally played in a Test match, after my room-mate Nathan Hines received a ban.

I was named man-of-the-match but we lost the match and the series – I was proud of how I had performed but the overwhelming emotion was one of bitter disappointment.

I lived in Spain most of my youth so I didn’t really come across rugby. It wasn’t until I came back to the UK. We moved to Surrey, I joined Godalming Sixth Form College and it all sparked off.

My economics teacher was a Kiwi and his brother-in-law was a second row in Otago. He saw me in a Surrey Cup match and a year later said ‘what is that kid doing? We would love to give him some playing experience’.

I was hell-bent on leaving home anyway – trying to get away from the parents – so I said yes instantly and aged 17 I was over in New Zealand, getting my expenses paid.

I barely knew rugby was amateur. I was driven to make a career out of it, even though there wasn’t a career to be made. It was a bit naïve, but obviously it panned out.

My first few years at Wasps were the early days of professionalism, when really we weren’t terribly professional – I don’t think anyone was. But we were getting paid and absolutely loving life.

After that Gatland, and the team he brought in, really set the benchmark for professional rugby in this country. We went from a reasonably good rugby side to one that won everything. Very few people spend 15 years at one club and when you do that, you have to accept that people move on and you’re going to be the one left behind.

There comes a time and my time was after the 2011 World Cup, when I sat in a room and thought ‘this is ridiculous – I might as well be at another club’.

Toulon had been approaching me for three or four years and I thought ‘why not have one summer in the sun?’ It was absolutely the right decision. We got to two Top 14 finals in two years and a Heineken Cup final, so not too bad.

And I’ve been busy in retirement setting up www.inmylocker.co.uk, to auction rugby memorabilia for charity, and Stokes & Moncrieff – a rugby bar in Twickenham opening this weekend.

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