Hawke's Bay Today
ABs coaches carrying a grudge
Quick shift to England leaves Shields open to question over his international integrity
Playing against former Hurricanes captain Brad Shields in a test match this weekend will carry a novelty factor for a few All Blacks who know him well.
It was a while ago now, but Shields was in the New Zealand Under-20 team that won the 2011 Junior World Championship alongside the likes of Codie Taylor, Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane, TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett.
Together they chased the dream of graduating to the All Blacks and a staggering 13 of the 22 who were involved in the final have indeed played for New Zealand.
But Shields isn’t one of them. Respected and admired by his peers, he just couldn’t do quite enough to persuade the All Blacks selectors he was the right choice.
He came close. As assistant All Blacks coach Ian Foster confirmed, Shields was frequently in their conversations between 2012 and 2017 but never for quite long enough.
Until this time last year, when he would have been called up to captain the mid-week side to play a French XV in Lyon, and possibly then won a full cap, given Kieran Read was injured for the final test of the year.
Would have been but for the fact the selectors asked him about his long-term plans and, when he said he was intending to sign with Wasps in England, that was it.
The call-up was off and instead Luke Whitelock, another of his Under-20 teammates, took his place in France.
His fellow professionals have long made peace with Shields’ decision to commit to his parents’ homeland, if indeed they ever had to reconcile it at all.
To those who had served in the trenches alongside Shields it was an understandable move — one driven by opportunity. There were no grudges, no funny looks or sense of betrayal.
Shields had set his sights on being an All Black, gave it seven good years but, when it became apparent the big break wasn’t going to come, not one of his former Under-20 teammates disagreed with his right to change course and win his first cap with England in June.
To them, the decision was pragmatic more than anything else, as the driver for Shields was to play international rugby as to specifically be an All Black.
But while his old chums, after they have tried to take his head off on the pitch, will greet Shields as a long-lost brother off it, the bonhomie and goodwill won’t extend to the All Blacks’ coaching box.
The view from in there about Shields’ decision to play for England is not so relaxed or forgiving.
To them, there is not so much a sense of betrayal, more a feeling of lost integrity.
Coaches don’t agree that players can chase the generic dream of playing test football and worry about the specifics of which country after the fact.
Test rugby demands everything from the players — the last little, tiny piece of their soul has to be connected to the jersey.
International coaches will say there has to be this sense within the individual that they respect and acknowledge the struggle it takes to fulfil a dream.
It has to be all or nothing and so, to see someone chase an All Blacks cap for 27 years and then take barely three months before they are playing for another country is not, in this coaching panel’s view, a credible pathway.
It lacks integrity — screams that Shields has opted for his second choice and in the process cast
doubt on how determined he was to play for the All Blacks, if he can so easily and readily commit to England.
While a touch sanctimonious, the All Blacks coaches give the impression that New Zealanders should preserve the sanctity of their ambition with a dignified refusal to play for any other country, no matter their right to do so.
Rejection is not a reason to switch allegiance and, while the All Blacks coaching panel don’t wish him ill, they don’t hold
Shields in any- where near the same respect as his peers do.
“When you are selecting a national team there are a whole lot of good players who don’t quite make it and he knew he was knocking on the door,” said Foster.
“He’s a fine player and he was very close. He was a quality person and he did a great job off the field. “There will be a bit of banter afterwards but I think we have got over the stage of seeing him in a white jersey now. He’s just a loosie who plays for England.
“I think everyone is going to have mixed opinions on that so you will probably find people who are close to those players, their family maybe, who will support it [playing for another country] and other people who have a different view on players jumping into a national team from another country so quickly.
“It is an issue I don’t want to talk about. He is not alone and there are a few others in other teams so it is what it is in the current laws.”