Juggling the Grand National and Gloucester
April 2, 2014
James Simpson-Daniel, trainer Michael Scudamore and Mike Tindall stand alongside their horse Monbeg Dude © Getty Images
"It's like a battlefield when the battle's over - there's been 40 brave horses and brave men doing battle round there - it just makes my hair stand on end". Legendary trainer Ginger McCain was no stranger to the drama of the Grand National, he guided Red Rum to three victories in the 1970s. After witnessing his fourth winner Amberleigh House in 2004, a full 31 years after Red Rum first won in 1973, the magic of the race still struck a chord with the then ageing trainer.
On Saturday, there will be a new fresh-faced owner on the side of the Aintree course experiencing fleeting parental instincts alongside the sheer nervousness of seeing his horse run in the world's most famous steeplechase. Gloucester winger James Simpson-Daniel, 31, owns one leg of Monbeg Dude, one of the favourites for Saturday's race, and talking on Tuesday, he was already a bag of nerves.
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Simpson-Daniel is no stranger to the battle of rugby, at the end of every game there are usually 46 weary folk out on their feet either raising arms celebrating a victory or hands on head attempting to draw breath from defeated lungs. But despite his experience of sport at the coalface, Saturday is likely to produce a new chapter for Simpson-Daniel in his sporting annals.
"The only thing I would say is that he's not the outsider; he's the third-favourite" Simpson-Daniel told ESPN. "You need a lot of luck in running. If he was to run and get around and whatever else, my ankle will get tested running."
A lot of luck in running, something rugby has not granted the mazy-footed winger. Back in 2002, Simpson-Daniel was one of the great hopes for English rugby. On his debut for England in a non-capped international in August 2002, he left Percy Montgomery and Jonah Lomu for dead to score a incredible solo try.
It was the sign Clive Woodward needed to give him the nod in the autumn Tests of 2002 for his full cap and Simpson-Daniel found himself once again up against Lomu. He acquitted himself well and it looked like England had maybe found their man for the 2003 Rugby World Cup but injuries were not keen to him.
"I don't count, I've had my fair share," Simpson-Daniel said. "The worst thing for me was the timing. I've had niggles and then recently, if I was to break it down surgery wise, I've had two ankle operations in my right ankle, I've broken my left leg with the plate in there and did my ligaments. I've had four shoulder ops and I've got a plate in my right clavicle.
"But there were other things like playing for England when I was younger and then getting Glandular Fever ahead of my second Test. I played in that but was in bed afterwards so saw someone else play in that win over South Africa.
"In 2005 I played against Samoa in the centres and got a bang on the hip point in the first-half and couldn't move my leg. These are random things which didn't keep me out for ages but the timing wise was awful. Other guys come in, take their chance and you're facing an uphill battle to get back in the side. My timing has always been around the England time, such as pre-2003 World Cup when I had a back injury."
The young Simpson-Daniel found injuries hard to take. He admits the experience "hurt" but now in his 30s, his increasing years have seen him grow resilient to the lonely moments injury inevitably induces. While untimely injuries have hindered his England chances, he has a criminally low 10 caps, he has proved to be a constant feature for Gloucester - he currently sits on 276 games for the Cherry and Whites, his club form is likely to be his rugby legacy.
"Around here people are exceptionally good to me, but you do get some abuse from the stands. I'm sure it was always meant in jest and when I was younger it did sting. But if they were to string me up and insult me about the injuries I've had, I have scored a few tries for Gloucester and played a fair few games for the club."
His most recent setback came just 27 minutes into a LV= Cup match against Newcastle back in November. Kingsholm fell deathly silent as the horrible sense of déjà vu emanated around the stadium as one of their favourite sons lay in agony on the turf. He had suffered a fracture/dislocation of his ankle.
While he cannot remember the first month of his recovery as he was being bumped full of pain killers, the enforced spell of rehabilitation - something he went through last season after a shoulder injury - saw him focus his competitive juices into new projects.
"For a long time it wasn't a consideration [life after rugby], you just want to concentrate on your rugby and think of nothing else. But the last year or two, you become more aware of life and you start taking it more seriously. I've done a course or two, one was looking at going from playing to coaching in schools. Kings Biltong [a business set-up alongside his brothers Charlie and Mark and one James is involved with as a company director] is taking up a lot of my spare time but I've become more aware of it."
Combining his recovery and selling the company's three different types of biltong is his stake in Monbeg Dude. The horse was an impulse buy by Mike Tindall at a Cheltenham bloodstock sale back in February 2010. When Tindall somehow ended up being the winning bidder on £12,000, Simpson-Daniel was sat at the same table and agreed to chip in alongside Bristol fly-half Nicky Robinson and trainer Michael Scudamore. The horse has been much more successful than Simpson-Daniel could ever have hoped for.
"It was all unplanned and since then we've been very, very lucky. We didn't pay a huge amount for him and he's given us lots of fun days out and has run some valuable races."
It won the Welsh Grand National in 2013 but Saturday's proposition at Aintree is another step-up, one that Simpson-Daniel admits he is "shit scared" of. Whatever the result at the course on Saturday, a day later Simpson-Daniel's mind will flit back from his life outside of rugby to his club Gloucester.
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On Sunday they take on Wasps in the Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-final. He's never a happy spectator. "When they're celebrating after the game, I find it difficult to celebrate with them, if I haven't been part of it, I can't go out and party like a cup final."
The good news for Gloucester and rugby as a whole is that his recovery is progressing well and is committed to seeing out his new two-year deal. He has targeted the start of next season as a realistic return date and although he has a developing picture of what life will be like when he finally hangs up his scorched boots, he is not ready to call time quite yet.
"I don't try to showboat, I don't do cartwheels after scoring tries. It's not my thing. I don't particularly like scoring tries, I'd rather put someone through a hole to score. I get more out of setting someone up for a try rather than dotting it down. Anyone can score a hat-trick, all you have to do is dot the ball down, but I see it as who put you there. I'd rather be that person.
"I am looking forward to my lungs burning and getting the ball in hand on the pitch. It's been four months since I injured myself, but it has felt like four years. I'll play these last two years and then reluctantly step aside."
But before that, comes the Grand National. After witnessing his England debut against Jonah Lomu in 2002, a report from the Daily Telegraph read: "Take Simpson-Daniel's pace as read. We knew all about that. What we did not know was whether he had the nerve to cut it at this level. He has. He backed himself against the best and came off a winner."
Simpson-Daniel will hope the same applies to his horse on Saturday.
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Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.