With the British & Irish Lions set to travel to South Africa next summer, one man knows better than most what lies ahead in the Rainbow Nation.
Simon Shaw toured South Africa twice with the Lions, tasting success in 1997 and falling agonisingly short in 2009 despite producing arguably his career-best performance in the second Test. The former England lock talks to STEFFAN THOMAS about how Warren Gatland’s side is shaping up, who he believes should captain the tour, and his verdict on Eddie Jones’ England.
You’ve been on the previous two Lions tours to South Africa while you’ve also toured New Zealand and Australia. What’s different about South Africa?
If you asked me which one is my favourite to tour, I’d say South Africa hands down. It encompasses everything you want from a tour as a player and a fan. It’s an unbelievable experience. It’s the one nation that not only lives and breathes the sport, but the fans are extraordinarily welcoming of the home nations.
In South Africa you’ve got everything. You’ve got the scenery, the wildlife, the passion for the game, and the last three times we’ve toured there – including this time – they’ve been reigning world champions. That adds a bit more spice. The weather is normally good which means a good brand of rugby gets played. It ticks all the boxes.
Who are the leading contenders for second row spots on tour?
Maro Itoje is a shoo-in. I don’t think he’s currently at the top of his game, but he’s never far off because he’s such an athlete. He’s such an integral part of England and Saracens while he’s tasted success everywhere he’s gone. He’s the epitome of confidence.
He’s also very versatile and it helps he can play in the back row. Assuming he doesn’t get injured, he’s on the plane.
Outside of Itoje it’s a bit of a melting pot at the moment. Alun Wyn Jones is still in the mix while I think James Ryan, Courtney Lawes and Iain Henderson are all strong contenders.”
In 2009 you started a Lions Test at 35. Can Alun Wyn Jones, who is the same age, follow in your footsteps?
Alun Wyn Jones is suffering because of Wales’ current form. I know sometimes it can get the better of you as a player and a captain if your team is not doing well. Sometimes you try and do more to compensate for your team-mates which can have a detrimental effect on your form.
But he’s a proven world-class player and that doesn’t disappear overnight. Relative to me he’s also still a very young chap! With his captaincy alone he’s a strong candidate to tour. You can’t underestimate the presence of certain players.
I think there is also an ability for certain players to take themselves to a different level when the moment is right and the occasion is as big as it will be.
That won’t be lost on Warren. He’ll know Wales are struggling for form, but there are always big performances in players like Alun Wyn. At the very least you’ll want him on the tour for his leadership ability and when things aren’t going well, he is the sort of guy you want next to you in the trenches.
You don’t want many players to try and find their form on the tour. You want them selected on merit and performance, but there are certain dispensations.
Do you see any Lions bolters?
I think Jack Willis is a strong contender to tour. He won twice as many turnovers to the next best in the Premiership which is quite some statistic.
Against South Africa the breakdown is always hotly contested. They like to have the upper hand and they like to bully people in that area.
If there is the potential of having a guy like Jack who is virtually guaranteed to win a decent number of turnovers a game then he could be a huge weapon for the Lions.
Who would be your choice as captain?
I quite like the look of someone like Jamie George. He’s understated and I think that would suit the Lions. He reminds me a bit of Rory Best in the fact he’s so level-headed and can live in the moment. He is a good tactician, but is not necessarily an all singing, all dancing player. He’d be a steady option I feel.
When all is kicking off around him, he still seems very steady and I think you have to be like that as a hooker. Things can be going off in the scrum, but you’ve still got to refocus and get your lineout throws straight. That’s pressure and there is only one other position on the pitch which has that – the kicker. It’s not a bad choice to have a hooker as captain.
What chance have the Lions got of winning the Test series considering they will have limited preparation time?
It’s a difficult tour because the Lions will likely be battered and bruised by the time they get to the Test matches.
On the 2009 tour we lost three or four players in one Test and it ultimately cost us the match. Playing fewer games could have made a difference so it could be a blessing in disguise there are fewer games this time. They’ll have to match the Springboks physically to have any chance, but I think they have the right coach in Warren Gatland. Rugby is a very emotional game and Gatland’s strength is getting the best out of his players on an emotional level.
What do you make of England under Eddie Jones?
I’ve spoken to a number of the players and not one of them has a bad word to say about Eddie and that’s fairly unusual. Most squads over the years have players with gripes and issues.
Eddie has the players onside. I spoke to Ben Youngs after the World Cup final and he’s one of those players that never felt at his best until Eddie came in. He never felt potential was being fulfilled before Eddie’s arrival. They’ll continue to improve and they’ll never take a step backwards. I think England will be serious contenders for the next World Cup.
In your career how important was playing for the Lions compared to the World Cup?
I played in three World Cups and three Lions tours. I’m not ashamed to say this, but I definitely enjoyed Lions tours a hell of a lot more than World Cups. It seems bizarre to say this, but you are under slightly less pressure with the Lions. In the three World Cups I played in there was an awful lot of pressure. In 2003 we were deemed favourites and expected to win it. We ended up doing it by the narrowest of margins.
In 2007 we were defending champions and we got thrashed in our pool game by South Africa so every game thereafter was high pressure. In 2011 we won the Six Nations so people expected us to do well.
The Lions is different. There is an opportunity to catch the eye of selectors that don’t have your international destiny in their hands. For me it was a relief to come into the tours without being first choice for England.
There was much more freedom to play the way I wanted to. When playing for England I felt like I was pushed into playing a certain way. If you are selected for a Lions Test you’ve been selected because of the style of rugby you’ve played up to that point on tour. There is certainly more freedom playing for the Lions.
What have you made of your old club Wasps’ recent revival and can they consistently challenge for silverware?
I was incredibly surprised by their turnaround midway through last season. I looked at their team and thought there are not many familiar faces. I didn’t even see them being in the top half of the league, so reaching the final was extraordinary. I think the biggest challenge has been keeping players. There seems to be key departures most seasons so if they can reverse that trend, they’ve got every chance of competing for silverware.
How are you involved with the Matt Ratana Foundation and what does it mean to you?
I’m a rugby champion for the Atlas Foundation which uses rugby and education as tools for social change.
Before his untimely death Matt was trying to instil in the kids he coached not only the values of rugby, but the values he had growing up in the Maori community which is very much about family. His foundation approached Atlas for advice. Matt was not only a public servant protecting us, but when he finished his day job he was carrying on his amazing work into the community at wide. I thought that was pretty powerful stuff.
What else are you doing?
I’ve got involved in a fantasy rugby app which has just been launched. It’s been founded by a few French guys and it’s very popular in France. I’m an investor in it. I’m also involved in restaurants and bars where I live in Toulon as well as marketing brands.
Simon Shaw was speaking on behalf Fantasy Rugby World: https://fantasyrugbyworld.com/en/