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'Still bitter about it now': The setback that bugs Simpson-Daniel

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Mike Egerton/EMPICS via Getty Images)

Retired England international James Simpson-Daniel has revealed one aspect of his stellar club career with Gloucester that he is still bitter about to this day. It’s now 20 years since the Premiership underwent a change in format, the league in England introducing end-of-season playoffs to decide who would be crowned champions.

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And Gloucester were that rejig’s first victims, so to speak, the table-toppers unable to replicate their regulation season form when it came to trophy final day at Twickenham. It was the previous two years when the authorities initially dabbled with the idea of having end-of-season playoffs.

On both occasions, Leicester were declared champions of England as they had topped the Premiership table at the end of the regular league season in 2001 and 2002. However, those campaigns then continued with the top eight teams playing quarter-finals, semi-finals and a final in a separate competition – the Zurich Championship – that was won the first year by the table-topping Tigers and the second year by the eighth-place Bristol.

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When it came to 2003, Premiership officials had decided that its champions would not be the team that topped the table at the end of the regular season. Instead, the champions would be decided by a playoff final at Twickenham.

It was May 10 that year when Gloucester rounded off their 22-game campaign with a resounding 31-13 Kingsholm win over Leicester which left them finishing as the table toppers, 15 points clear of second-place Wasps and 20 ahead of third-place Northampton.

With Gloucester progressing directly to the showpiece final on May 31, they were left without a match for three weeks and Wasps used the momentum of their semi-final victory over the Saints to go on and hammer the Cherry and Whites 39-3 at English Rugby HQ in front of a 42,000 attendance.

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It’s a sour Gloucester memory that has now been revisited by Simpson-Daniel and James Forrester on the BT Sport Rugby Stories podcast. The episode culminates in a celebration of the 2005/06 European Challenge Cup final win by Gloucester, but the hurt of previous big-game defeats was also touched on – including the 2003 Premiership final loss.

“The Wasps performance, losing in the final, it’s a one-off game, it’s very disappointing,” said Simpson-Daniel, whose lengthy Gloucester career ran from 2000 through to 2013. “We had a couple of those types of matches whereby we couldn’t find our game for a final. If we had been given prizes for getting to finals or semis then we would have heaps but the fact is we always used to lose those big matches.

“You know, I am still bitter about it now. I still feel you that should get something for finishing top because that is what a league is and then if you win the playoff as well you get something else, but that is just my view.”

Forrester agreed. “Sadly 02/03, we came top of the pile by 15 points, played some brilliant rugby that year, a joy to be involved with but it’s one of those things that always grates on you a little bit and is something that you think about a fair amount, falling short in that final.

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“We had a couple of injuries, Wasps were on an amazing run of form. It was a bit of a strange concept. We didn’t play a semi, we went straight into the final and Wasps had a big semi-final victory and were on a real run.

“We had a three-week gap of no games before the final and it was strange how you dealt with that period. Anyway, I am getting all the excuses in. We lost very comprehensively to Wasps that day. They just totally outplayed us and were comfortably the better side on the day.”

  • For the full Gloucester episode, check out BT Sport’s podcast series, Rugby Stories, part of the BT Sport Pods lineup of podcasts. Every Monday, Rugby Stories, presented by Craig Doyle, will spotlight and celebrate English club rugby history. Btsport.com/pods

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