Simpson: time for the next chapter

By Ben Nurse

Making just one appearance in the English Premiership is an achievement many rugby fans and players could only dream of. Of those who are lucky enough to debut, only a select few of the most talented and dedicated players will play long enough at the highest level to earn 100 Premiership appearances.

Even fewer make it to a double century. Above that sits a select group of the league’s very best. Players like our very own Joe Simpson.

Since making his Wasps debut at a rainy Stoop in 2008, Joe has gone on to make almost 350 club appearances for five of England’s biggest clubs in Wasps, Gloucester, Saracens, Bath and Sale.

Throw in an England cap at the 2011 World Cup and it’s easy to see why the 34-year-old is held in such high esteem by teammates, coaches and fans alike.

Now he’s decided to hang up his boots at the end of 2022, but not before taking a trip down memory lane.

He said, “My debut was on a cold rainy night at The Stoop against Harlequins. We were going through a bit of a shaky run so I got the opportunity to play, and I just remember being a bit of a headless chicken.

“I was just getting the ball and running as fast as I could, I managed to get a try, but we lost. That moment has stuck with me for some time, and I am sure it will stick with me for many more years to come

“It was a fantastic time to join Wasps, we were the reigning English champions and the European champions the year before that. We were on a run of a having won seven trophies in six years.

“It was a ridiculous squad, full of internationals, full of legends, full of my idols and heroes. As a fresh faced 18-year-old out of school, training and playing with those legends was eye-opening. Seeing the way they trained and conducted themselves and the ethos they had was incredible, and it was a very fast learning curve.

“I remember being in an ice bath with Lawrence Dallaglio, and I tried to get out and he just put his arm on me and said, ‘not yet’ and I stayed in for what felt like a lifetime because he was a World Cup winner and my hero.

“I used to drive France international Serge Betsen to the games because he only had one car and his wife and kids would come up later. I would be sat there driving with Serge Betsen sat next to me, it was so bizarre.”

Even with this baptism of fire, in a melting pot of international rugby legends, a young Joe was never convinced that he would make it as a professional rugby player.

He said: “I had no real ambition to be a rugby player growing up. I was lucky enough to play in two fantastic teams at school with St Benedict’s and at club with Richmond. I never thought I was the best rugby player, and I didn’t know rugby was a career opportunity. It became a possibility at 17 when I was offered a professional contract and it became apparent that I could be a professional rugby player and things started kicking on and I ran with it.

“The biggest things I will take away from rugby are the bonds I have made with people. The world of rugby is a very special place, you put your body on the line and you make sacrifices, and it creates a thicker, deeper bond than you can make anywhere else. Through adversity, pain, suffering, sacrifice you become very close.

“I have been lucky to play all over the world; in Toulon, in Toulouse, at night in packed out stadiums, that is when you realise how far you have come. I have played in a Premiership final with Wasps. That was probably the closest team I have played in, that was my team. Being out there on the pitch and you look around and see your closest friends, that is very special.

“I am also enormously proud of my England appearance. I think I actually took it for granted at the time, I didn’t fully appreciate how big it was. Everything came quickly to me and it took time to take a step back and realise what I had achieved. To be in that England squad with Jonny Wilkinson and coached by Martin Johnson was a phenomenal achievement and I wish we could have gone further. I still get goosebumps now remembering that I have played for England. It’s my proudest achievement of my career.

A road which started at Richmond and went via Wycombe, Dunedin, Gloucester, Barnet and Bath, has eventually ended in Manchester, and Joe says he’s loved seeing out the last moments of his career at Sale Sharks.

He said: “I have come in at a different stage of my career. It is a young team that is building and striving for success. But everyone has been so welcoming.

“Al has been guiding the ship expertly and I feel very privileged to have played for him. He understands where I am in my life and has given me the extra time when I have needed it to get home and help my family. It has also been a fitting end to come full circle and play with some of my closest friends in Simon McIntyre and Tommy Taylor, who I played with in the Premiership final at Wasps.

“The thing I will miss most about rugby is the day-to-day, coming in sore and tired when it’s cold or raining. The boys get around each other and you get through it together. That team atmosphere and friendship is hard to replace, and I will sorely miss it. That gap will forever be a part of my life.”

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