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Gone but not forgotten: 'I'd a conversation with Eddie over summer'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images)

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RugbyPass encountered an interview with a difference with Brad Shields last week, the Wasps back-rower chatting away over the phone for the guts of half an hour while on the team bus heading south on the M5 to Bath. There were blind spots where the reception went kaput, moments of loud noise in the background from merry-making teammates and even the beep of a horn as the coach wound its way through the Friday afternoon traffic en route to The Rec and the following day’s much-needed victory.  

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The busy, on-the-move setting for the conversation sounded like a recipe for disaster, but what unfolded was very much the opposite as the 30-year-old was an open book. Anything went despite having so many colleagues – if they were nosey – being able to eavesdrop every word he had to say during the 100 mile-plus journey from the Midlands.   

Shields’ recent first-ever red card, how contract tracing put the kibosh on his Premiership final appearance last year, breaking through at the Hurricanes way back and, of course, that seismic decision to quit chasing the All Blacks and throw his lot in with England were all insightfully embraced but first things first – life on the bus in England.

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Flying was the regular mode of transport during all his years at the Hurricanes, even for an away game in New Zealand. Safe to say the air miles were plentiful with annual trips to Australia, South Africa and beyond, so the English motorway trips are all easy-peasy by comparison. All the more so now that the more draconian aspects of the virus protocols have relented and become more manageable this term. 

“For us, it is fine because we are tested so frequently and are grouped together, things are generally back to normal for us,” enthused Shields, kicking off the interview about 30 minutes into the approximate two-hour road trip. 

“Most bus trips are only a couple of hours. In the Midlands, you have got a few teams near where we are. You have got London and Bristol, possibly the furthest with Exeter. They have got a couple of TVs on the bus and you can play cards with the boys or have a nap. There is generally a stop around halfway and you can eat some food and stuff like that. It’s not too bad, we are pretty lucky. It is not your average bus either, It’s a pretty decent size bus.”

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Wasps sure need their creature comforts in a Premiership campaign that is taking its time to rev up. Victory at Bath left them at breakeven – three wins from six – heading into this Sunday’s home game versus champions Harlequins, but any cribs over their inconsistencies must be tempered by the extensive injury list currently robbing them of so many high profile names. Dan Robson’s need for surgery incredibly made him the 18th name unavailable for selection for this weekend’s final match before the Premiership draws breath for its three-week break. 

Shields is optimistic about the winter ahead. “We have been doing some really, really good stuff,” he insisted despite the number of Ws being matched by the same number of Ls. “It’s just that little bit of composure that has let us down against Newcastle and Exeter and then Saracens we got a fair bit wrong, but when we did get it right we played some really good rugby.     

“The biggest thing for each game is how can we do things slightly differently in the way we train? If you look at the standard we are setting at Wasps in our training, it is hopefully bleeding into our game. We push each other really hard and are really demanding of each other as a squad and that is who we want to be every week. If we are competitive with each other then it should transfer into the games and help us get more consistent results.”

Even in Wasps’ best day at the office so far there was frustration, Shields twice yellow carded for maul collapse offences in the 44-8 September hammering of Bristol. For a player who only ever had two yellows throughout his entire professional career stretching back to 2010, the sight of referee Karl Dickson twice fishing into his pocket to brandish the yellow and cap it all with a flash of the red was a brutal experience for the New Zealander.  

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“I got a couple of yellow cards before but hadn’t experienced what it was like to get a red. For me, it’s a weird one because it wasn’t really ‘foul’ play but technically it is foul play. When you do something like that technically (at the maul) you think you are in the right. It’s like going for a jackal consistently and you think you are in the right and you get penalised… I was lucky enough not to get the ban the following week, that it was just a red card. 

“We talked to a few refs after that and everyone had a similar opinion. We had to adapt the way we play if that situation arises because of the way the game is reffed. You have to adhere to that. Although you can push the boundaries in certain areas if there are multiple referees who all think the same thing, you have just got to change what you are doing so we have addressed and adapted and hopefully it doesn’t happen again.”

One thing that Shields earnestly does want to happen again for Wasps, though, is that they qualify for a Premiership final. Their appearance 13 months ago in the delayed 2019/20 decider at Twickenham was a just reward for the rich style of flow in their post-lockdown play but that fluency ultimately had a wounding sting as the back-rower and multiple others were ruled out of the showpiece fixture due to contract tracing following a Covid outbreak in the squad in the days leading up to the game.

“Devastating, mate, devastating. Firstly, because I had to watch it on TV. Secondly, because we lost and I could see how much it meant to the boys to be there and how much effort they had put in. Obviously, it was the most disrupted week anyone has had before a game, let alone a final. We had the Covid outbreak and then boys couldn’t train the whole week until the team run. 

“It was pretty devastating because I knew how hard I had worked, I knew how hard we had worked during that lockdown to be on the same page and make sure we gave it our best shot. There was plenty more in the tank and if we get to that situation again I feel we will be able to go all the way but we have got to get to that situation first. It definitely haunts a few of the boys how close in the grasp it was but that’s rugby. You have just gotta keep knocking on the door as it is the consistently good teams that get to those finals and playoffs and we want to be that team.”

Becoming the 14th man to play 100 games for the Hurricanes wasn’t something Shields dreamed of growing up. As with so many players from New Zealand, his first memories in the sport are of running around bare-footed in the freezing cold of winter, playing touch rugby in Waiouru before excelling at Taita College.

He was also talented at other sports, playing regional basketball and for the Black Sox U19s at softball. “I didn’t necessarily do as well in the classroom but I loved to try my hand at everything,” he reflected. “About 16 or 17 I had an opportunity to play softball at a high level and I had to choose and for me, rugby just had that little more passion.” 

Shields soon flew up the ladder at the Hurricanes, becoming a Super Rugby champion in 2016. “It was just an amazing journey. When I first came into the group, Mark Hammett was the coach and his biggest thing was team culture and making sure we built the team culture into a winning culture and we did alright. We missed out on playoffs by a couple of points in my first couple of years which was pretty devastating. I don’t think you really realise how much that can affect. 

“But when Chris Boyd came in, it took all of Mark Hammett’s ideas to the next level and the journey we went on, the core group sort of stuck together for those seven years and built from being a not really sure bunch of young guys into realising we can do something special here. Unfortunately, we didn’t get it in ’15 – we definitely could have played a lot better but the Highlanders were better on the day. 

“But we wanted to lift the trophy for the Hurricanes and the city of Wellington, something that hadn’t been done before, and in 2016 nothing was going to stop is. I was just extremely proud and extremely humbled to be part of the group that managed to do that.” 

It was after the Lions came and went in 2017 that Shields took the life-changing decision that still headlines his career. He had fleetingly made the All Blacks squad in 2012 only for his knee to get busted by Sam Cane at training and his squad recall four years later also came and went minus a debut cap. It left him free to explore another route, his English-born parents the qualification that resulted in him becoming the 1,399th player to play for England when coming on as a 36th-minute substitute in South Africa in 2018.  

Shields’ background checks out as his parents emigrated from England at the age of two. It was 1964 when his mother Danielle’s family traded Rochford in Essex for New Zealand, her quantity surveyor father seeing an opportunity as a ‘Ten Pound Pom’. Two years later, the family of Shields’ father Nigel, who were into aeronautical engineering, made the switch from Hull.

Despite this connection then being strengthened by his parents returning to live in England in 2015, Shields found himself in the eye of a storm, Kiwis seeing red over his switch to England and even some English fans annoyed that he was parachuted into the Test mix to play while still with the Hurricanes prior to his move to Wasps. Any regrets? “No, mate. It was the hardest decision I had to make in my professional career so far. To ship my family over to the UK didn’t happen overnight. It was a conversation that took a couple of months to decide what I wanted to do and what I wanted to pursue. 

“At the end of the day, you have to be selfish in a way and see what is going to be good for us, be selfish to achieve some goals that you wanted to achieve. What I have managed to do has been pretty cool and I will look back on my career and not have any regrets in terms of the decisions I made. I will hold a special place in my heart for all the different teams that I played for and all the people and friends I have met along the way. 

“I always knew I had English parents who moved to New Zealand and had their kids over there. My ultimate goal was I really wanted to play international rugby and it didn’t happen in New Zealand and I was pretty desperate to achieve that goal. I had a couple of conversations with a couple of different people, managed to get a bit of an idea how it might go down, and the rest was up to me to play good rugby and get into the mix. 

“Everyone has got their opinions and I always think as long as you are surrounded by people who support you, who are positive and are going to support you in your decision then that is all that matters. There were a lot of people who didn’t like to see what happened but I thought it would be silly not to take it and that was my mindset. I got an opportunity and wanted to take it with two hands. 

“I had the support of my family and friends and the Hurricanes supported me while I was there, supported me in my transition and that was the main thing. It pushed away all the other negative thoughts, the negative media that was out there. I didn’t download it or anything like that. I didn’t read the news, didn’t know what else was going on…”

Within a matter of months, Shields was lining up to face the All Blacks. “It was weird, really weird. The strangest thing was facing the haka. I’d been in school and at age-grade performing a fair few hakas before games. To be on the receiving end of that was something different and to hear the crowd singing during the haka was pretty emotional.

“To play against some of my mates and some guys I had played most of my career with was pretty special. It was pissing down with rain but it was one of those feelings I will never forget, one of the games I will never forget and I remember watching a couple of highlights a few weeks ago. For some reason it came up and I was just proud to be amongst it, proud to get an opportunity. I managed to swap my jersey after the game with Dan Coles, one of my good friends from the Canes. It was pretty special, something that will be a part of me forever.”

What wasn’t much longer part of Shields, though, was his involvement with England as he won the last of his eight caps in March 2019. He’s gone but not forgotten, however. “I had a conversation with Eddie (Jones) over the summer and he just said keep trucking away basically. I want to play really well for Wasps and to have things happen outside of that is a bonus.

“It [England] is always going to be sitting in the back of your mind, that goal, and I am the only one that can make it happen and I can make it happen by playing good rugby. There are a lot of good players, a lot of young back-rowers that are coming through. I am a bit more experienced and am later in my career so for me, it is just playing good rugby and whatever happens from there is out of my control. Basically, that is how I look at it.”

In the meantime, there are games to be won with Wasps and a new drinks business with Josh Bassett to grow. “I just want to play for Wasps and give myself the best opportunity to play consistently and hopefully we can get to the final. I am really enjoying the culture and we have a new training facility now that is really classy and I’m just loving it. It [his next contract renewal] isn’t really front of mind just yet.

“Rugby is surrounded by beer and we wanted to create something that was light and refreshing, something that would taste good and we think it tastes bloody good,” added Shields about his off-field venture. “It’s called Social, a vodka-based soda drink with flavouring and we have done it a little bit differently. We have put a little bit of apple juice as the base, it just brings a natural sweetness to it. 

“We have learned so much over the last little bit and it is going alright. Slow and steady wins the race. It is a different ball game for us trying to learn how to sell a beverage rather than play rugby. Pandemic or no pandemic, it is has been a fun little journey. The feedback has been good so far. Hopefully, it takes off.”

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