Memories of leaving Lomu in the shade as All Blacks return

Gloucester's James Simpson-Daniel gets away from Toulouse's Patricio Albecete during the Heineken Cup Pool Six match at Kingsholm. (Pcture: David Davies/PA Wire)
Gloucester's James Simpson-Daniel gets away from Toulouse's Patricio Albecete during the Heineken Cup Pool Six match at Kingsholm. (Pcture: David Davies/PA Wire)
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No matter how great the fear factor among the England players today, no matter how powerful the adrenalin surge as they step onto the field to take on the finest team in rugby, it is unlikely to match that experienced by James Simpson-Daniel 11 autumns ago.

“It was terrifying,” recalls the north Yorkshireman, who back then was a wide-eyed 20-year-old winning his first England cap.

The Red Rose team he was hoping to establish himself in was one building towards its finest hour 12 months later in Sydney.

The All Blacks that day were their usual formidable selves, and if not the all-conquering team of the present day incarnation, daunting opponents nonetheless.

“I’d have preferred a nice easy debut against someone easier, but at the same time, what a time to make your debut,” said Simpson-Daniel, “playing against New Zealand at Twickenham, against an opponent like that.”

That opponent was Jonah Lomu, who more than anyone epitomised the awesome force of the All Blacks. Simpson-Daniel, who a little over two years earlier had been a pupil at Sedburgh School representing Yorkshire’s Under-18s, was set to line up against him on the wing.

“Everyone knows the haka, everyone knows the history, and the added thing for me was I was facing Jonah Lomu again,” he says, having outsmarted the best player in the world six months earlier when he played for England in a non-cap Test against Lomu and the Barbarians.

“Things had gone my way that day. I’d scored a try where I managed to run around Jonah, although I’m the first to point out that had I got that dummy wrong he’d have grabbed me and put me in row Z, and I’d have looked an idiot. But, I just managed to get around his fingertips.

“It’s a thin line between looking like a clown and scoring a great try, so I’ll take the latter.

“Because of what had happened in the summer, however, everyone was trying to build up our rivalry as a rematch.

“If that was the case, he won. Jonah had a good game that day, yet we won the game.

“With all that came with it; the opponents, the man I faced, the fact that we won; it all made for a very special moment for me.”

Eleven years later, through 10 England caps, three missed World Cups and a glorious decade with Gloucester, Simpson-Daniel is now a passionate observer as England square up to New Zealand once more.

The All Blacks of the present day are the most revered in world rugby. They have lost only one game since August, 2011, a sequence that includes a World Cup triumph and two clean sweeps of the southern hemisphere Rugby Championship.

They have grown stronger since that one aberration, the 38-21 defeat to England 11 months ago. But so, too, have England, with Stuart Lancaster’s men using that magnficent high as a platform.

For Simpson-Daniel, the England of today have to strike a fine balance between how they approach their opponents, and draw on those strong memories.

“You cannot fear New Zealand, you’ve got to respect them,” he says.

“You cannot disrespect a side as awesome as they are. But they can concede points, so it doesn’t make them invincible.

“Look at the sides that have scored against them, it shows it is possible. The main thing the guys will have in the back of their mind is the fact they managed to produce that last year.

“That was the perfect performance, I think everyone was blown away, even the England players. They’ll turn around and say ‘we always felt confident’, but deep down inside they’d have gone into that match thinking ‘we’re up against it’, especially after the form they showed in the previous two games.

“So to pull that out of the bag was incredible, and that’s what they’ll be thinking about today, not so much living in the past but taking confidence out of the fact that if they produce what they did last year they can beat this side.

“The dangerous thing about that is New Zealand have had to carry that with them for the last year and they’ll be keen to make sure they go out there and put a performance together.”

Simpson-Daniel lined up twice against the All Blacks in an England career punctuated by too many injuries.

Three times he was on the cusp of England’s World Cup squad, yet three times he was overlooked. The one that hurts is 2003, a golden year for English rugby that takes on greater significance this coming week with the 10-year anniversary.

“I was delighted when Jonny kicked the drop goal, but within five minutes I was gutted, because I hadn’t been a million miles away from being a part of that and I was absolutely devastated,” says Simpson-Daniel, who missed the final warm-up match with France because of a slight back injury.

“I loved it when I was involved with England, but I just seemed to get injured at the wrong time. I lost x-amount of caps, but you cannot live that way – injuries are part of our sport.”

The injuries have not dimmed his passion for Gloucester, with whom he signed upon leaving Sedburgh at 18. He was attracted to the club by Phil Vickery and Philippe Saint-Andre, because they made him “feel more comfortable” than Bath, who had been among a number of suitors for the winger. Fourteen years on, he is still tearing down the wings at Kingsholm.

As a proud Yorkshireman, Simpson-Daniel has also gone into business with his younger brothers Charlie and Mark.

Inspired by his rugby travels, the Simpson-Daniels are manufacturing and selling biltong, which is dried cured meats. “The idea came from Africa,” says the elder brother, whose company, Kings Biltong, is based in Yorkshire for its rural links. “It’s so healthy for you, players are opting to have biltong in the changing room after a game instead of protein bars, because it’s a lot more natural.”

nick.westby@ypn.co.uk