While attending a veterans’ game in support of MS-UK at Casterton, Sedbergh Preparatory School, Gloucester and England wing James Simpson-Daniel discusses time spent at Sedbergh, his domestic club career and any lingering international regrets with Ross McLean.
HE may have played hundreds of top-flight matches and collected honours on the international stage but James Simpson-Daniel insists a career in rugby’s big time was no guarantee.
The 31-year-old left Sedbergh in 2000 after representing the school’s first XV alongside his then skipper and fellow future England star Phil Dowson as well as Ireland’s Mike McCarthy.
Penning a deal with Gloucester, he made a try-scoring debut against Rotherham a year later and has clocked up 266 appearances and 595 points since.
While injuries have been a consistent hindrance, the winger has been capped by England on ten occasions, most recently against Scotland during the 2008 Six Nations.
And with a one-club career spanning 14 years and counting under his belt, Simpson-Daniel refuses to forget the influence of his alma mater or the inspiration of other former Sedberghians.
“Some players have an idea early they are going to be professionals but it was quite late in the day for me,” he said.
“I was always in first teams going through school but I was never great, probably average or just above, until my last year when I started to play a lot better and went to various trials.
“And that’s when scouts were hanging around asking if I was interested in joining clubs.
“I was getting contract offers about three months before the end of the school year and at the end of term it was straight down to Cheltenham.
“I’m fortunate I did make it because if I hadn’t I didn’t know what was going to happen as I had all my eggs in that basket, for me it was all about rugby.
“If it wasn’t for Sedbergh and what I learnt, there is no chance I would ever have made it professionally. I’m very proud to have gone there.
“And having the likes of Will Carling and Will Greenwood go before me was truly inspirational.”
Simpson-Daniel has been limited to just seven Premiership matches this season after dislocating and fracturing the joint in his left ankle during an LV= Cup win over Newcastle Falcons.
He underwent surgery in November before recently signing a new two-year contract at the Kingsholm Stadium amid reports of big-money offers to join France’s Top 14.
With the international spotlight no longer on his radar and club rugby his sole focus, Simpson-Daniel is bidding to bow out the game on top.
“For me it’s all about finishing off on a relative high,” he added. “I’ve had my fair share of injuries but still played plenty of rugby.
“It’s now all about getting my ankle and my leg right in order to finish my last two years of playing, getting plenty of game time and enjoying it.
“I can then hang up my boots feeling quite chuffed with what I’ve done.
“In terms of club career it’s mixed really, one highlight would be finishing top of the Premiership several seasons ago although we got stuffed in the play-offs.
“That was obviously a bit of a downer but finishing that season at the very top of the league by 15 points was great.
“We won the Anglo-Welsh Cup a couple times but I would have liked more memories of lifting trophies.
“However, there are plenty of little memories like the friends I have made in the game of rugby and that in itself is very special.”
While still a teenager, Simpson-Daniel rounded Jonah Lomu to score a famous touchdown for an uncapped England XV against the Barbarians before making his international debut against New Zealand at Twickenham in November 2002.
However, injuries became a recurring theme and prevented any sustained momentum in an England jersey – a back problem denied him a place in the final 30 for the 2003 World Cup.
Named Guinness Premiership Player of the Season in 2008, he continued to knock on the international door, called into the 2011 World Cup training squad before being released by Martin Johnson.
And while not looking back on his international career with unbridled satisfaction, Simpson-Daniel is not prepared to entertain too many misgivings.
“The injuries do come into my mind a little bit but I can’t live and regret things too much although it does play its part,” he said.
“Winning my first cap for England was amazing although the following week we beat Australia and then I had glandular fever so that led into bad memories so to speak.
“The non-cap against the Barbarians was good fun but that was basically it as in general I didn’t have great matches for England.
“I would have loved more caps and that’s a fact because for me I only played one or two good games for England out of my ten.
“I wish I had made it to the World Cup and would like to have played better when I had my chance but at the same time ten caps is ok. I’m certainly not bitter about anything.”