Standing an impressive 2.03m tall, Simon Shaw was not someone you could ever claim was vertically challenged. It was being horizontal that sometimes caused him issues throughout his 73-cap career.
In a position as aggressive and physical as the second row, the Rugby World Cup 2003 winner confesses he was too laidback for his own good and would often have to manufacture a situation to get himself fired up, even in the cauldron of a Springboks v British and Irish Lions test series.
“From the very get-go in my career, I have always been fairly horizontal, very laidback, so I always had it in my mind that I had to ignite the fire from within me,” the former England international revealed, in conversation with World Rugby from his home in France.
“I felt I had to do something pretty monumental in the first minute; that could be chasing down a kick with extra vigour and smashing someone.”
1997. Our first win in South Africa since 1974.— British & Irish Lions (@lionsofficial) March 12, 2021
Head to YouTube to watch our favourite moments from the last Tour of the 20th Century 📺#LionsRugby
Playing South Africa in South Africa is as big a challenge as any for a forward and one that Shaw knows better than most having toured there four times, twice with the Lions and twice with England.
Yet despite always being a big man for the big occasion, the England and Wasps legend still needed to be goaded into a man-of-the-match performance when he won his first Lions cap in the second test of the 2009 series.
“We had a scrum going backwards in the first test and it was perceived that that was where the Springboks had an edge. So Adam Jones and Matthew Rees and myself were brought in as the three changes to the pack,” he recalled.
“We’d come in to supposedly fix that problem, and if we fixed that problem, then we’d win. I felt under a huge amount of pressure to produce something special.
“I remember the Springboks catching the kick-off and marching us back 20 metres and we gave a penalty away.
“Bakkies Botha turned to me and said something to the effect of ‘I thought you were brought in to stop this happening, where is it?’
“I guess that was just what I needed because I thought, ‘right, I’m going to prove it to you.’
“I don’t remember much else other than it being a brutal game, one of the most brutal I can remember being involved with.”
Chasing lost causes
The result in Pretoria was also brutal, the Lions falling to a last-minute, 60-metre penalty from the boot of Morné Steyn. In losing 28-25, the Lions had salvaged some pride after a false start in the first test in Durban, but the series had been lost with one game still to play.
For Shaw, the concluding match at Ellis Park would be his final appearance in the famous red jersey, aged 35 years and 306 days. It ended with the Lions winning 28-9 despite Shaw receiving a first-half yellow card, for striking Fourie du Preez.
“I found myself scampering around the pitch trying to do what I’d done in the first test. But, for whatever reason, I didn’t get the chance to do an awful lot to note. Sometimes the ball can find you in one game but not in another and that’s just the way it goes,” admitted Shaw, who only lost two of his 19 appearances for the Lions on the tours of 1997, 2005 and 2009.
“Gats (Warren Gatland) had pointed to a number of players in the changing room beforehand saying that this would be your last-ever test match for the Lions and to make it worthwhile. If anything, I lost a bit of composure and I raced around like a lunatic and I was pulled off with about 20-30 minutes to go.
“Part of that yellow card was a knock-on effect of me trying to force the issue, there was no malintent, my legs just gave way.”
By and large, though, Shaw felt the Springboks brought out the best of him, whether it was playing for England, the Barbarians or the Lions, in 1997 and 2009.
“The Springboks based their whole game around a monstrous pack, because for whatever reason, they produce these huge men, and that in itself is a huge challenge,” he said.
“There are many games that I have played in where I felt I can dominate physically, partly because of my size and by using that to my advantage.
“But when you come up against the Boks, you tend to be on a par with them size-wise, if not smaller, and you’ve got to bring an extra percentage or two with you.
“Playing against the Boks is the biggest challenge in the world in terms of forward play, and I was aware of that.
“I have always prided myself on performing well in the must-perform moments, whatever the opposition, and I don’t think I let anyone down in those challenges against South Africa.”
🤯 A mind-blowing assist from @rikiflutey to set up an easy finish for @ShaneWilliams11— British & Irish Lions (@lionsofficial) January 26, 2021
A beautiful piece of rugby against the Springboks in 2009!
You can watch all three Tests from 2009 on @SkySports Arena on Wednesday morning from 7am 📺#LionsRugby pic.twitter.com/FQUC9Ab9AJ
Making his mark
Having been born in Nairobi and lived in Kenya until he moved to England at the age of 10, Shaw has a natural affinity with Africa.
“My first-ever England tour was to South Africa in 1994 and I went again in 2000, and to go on two Lions tours there was extraordinary,” he said.
“I love touring there. Not just because of the country, not just because I was born in Africa but because they’re a nation of rugby lovers and it’s one of the biggest challenges there is in rugby to go to their home and beat them, or at least challenge them.
“In ’97, I went there as a relatively young man (24) without the history of the Lions running through me because I’d only taken up the sport when I was 16.
“There was a little bit of taking it for granted because I didn’t appreciate the magnitude of touring and the magnitude of playing for the Lions.
“I missed out on the 2001 tour and 2005 was pretty miserable. But by 2009, I was acutely aware of what the Lions meant, and I wanted to leave my mark.”
As statements go, a man-of-the-match performance on his Lions test debut was pretty decent.