Former British & Irish Lions lock Simon Shaw reflects on his two Lions tours to South Africa, which came some 12 years apart.
Standing an impressive 2.03 metres 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 laid back for his own good and would often have to manufacture a situation to get himself fired up, even in the cauldron of a Springboks vs British & Irish Lions Test series.
‘From the very get-go in my career, I have always been fairly horizontal, very laid back, so I always had it in my mind that I had to ignite the fire from within me,’ Shaw 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.’
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 great 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 20m 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.’
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 lost in only two of his 19 appearances for the Lions.
‘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.
‘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. 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. I love touring there, 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.’
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