On the morning when Simon Shaw’s transfer to Toulon was confirmed, Wasps also had to announce the news that their back row forward Joe Worsley had been forced to hang up his boots.
Speaking to Worsley back in September, the uncertainty in his voice towards when he was likely to return was unnerving. The manner in which he spoke about the moment when he broke down once again in training with England at the pre-Rugby World Cup camp felt solemn. A lot like his former England teammate Lewis Moody, Worsley finds himself living in a battered body that can no longer operate as he wants it to. It is a safe argument to suggest that those players who have earned the most respect of colleagues, fans and pundits, are the men who have picked up the greatest damage.
In a sense, his eventual tally of 78 caps for England comes as a surprise. Constantly battling on the fringes of the national team for selection, Worsley’s ability to play all across the back row arguably worked against him. He found himself fighting for a place in the side early on with the holy triumvirate of Hill, Back and Dallaglio, and once those legends were gone, the new wave of Pat Sanderson, Moody, Martin Corry and Nick Easter.
Caught between two generations, the fact that he started over 50 matches is impressive, with his longest runs coming at number 8 in 2001-2002 and at flanker in England’s lean years between 2004 until and after the 2007 Rugby World Cup. It would be his third run-out on the world’s biggest stage, although he failed to surpass the glory of picking up a winner’s medal in 2003.
As much as his England career stuttered, one area where Worsley was never off the teamsheet was at his club, London Wasps. Having been at the club for 18 years, since the age of 16, the black and yellow is in his blood. Heineken Cup and domestic glory immortalised him. He was there for the semi-final against Munster, Howley’s dramatic try at Twickenham, and again in 2007 for the sweetest of victories in the Heineken final once again, this time over Leicester Tigers. These inclusions at the club’s greatest moments in history are no coincidence.
The respect he earned was down to his immense physicality in defence. Former and current teammates will be sad to hear of his retirement, whilst those who were on the receiving end of one of his big tackles will probably receive the news with both a smile and wince. It was his ability to put in the big hits, along with his skills at the breakdown, that saw him return to the England side in 2009, picked at 7 for the opening game of the Six Nations to give Wales nightmares. It would be the beginning of a rise that season that saw him capped for the first time by the British & Irish Lions at the age of 32. The win in the third Test over South Africa was arguably his international swansong.
Back to the present, Shaw is now in Toulon for one last hurrah in one of the most pleasant environments to be found in European rugby. For Worsley there is no final sojourn, his body will not permit it. Would he have it any other way? Doubtful. Once a Wasp…
by Ben Coles