England Rugby’s forgotten man Brad Shields’ resurgence as unrelenting leader of Wasps

Alfie Barbeary was Wasps’ only inclusion in England’s squad for the 2022 Six Nations, but many rugby fans and pundits had called for a recall from Brad Shields, who earned the most recent of his eight caps in 2019. Here, rugby writer Bobby Bridge shares his experiences about Shields’ career in English rugby…

Some parts of our conversation are blurry. The temporary building where it took place has been removed, the person opposite me has moved and Covid-19 had not entered our lives.

Dai Young, then director of rugby at Wasps, had asked me to speak privately ahead of a weekday media session, which was then held in person at the club’s former Broadstreet RFC training centre.

A cold shiver ran down my spine. Although I had a strong working relationship with the Welshman, he wasn’t afraid to inform me when I crossed the line, or write anything he could clarify to better inform me for the future.

As friendly and courteous as he was and remains, Young is a formidable physical presence with a rugby resume. It was an experience similar to being called up to the headmaster. What had I done, said, or written to justify this one-on-one?

The article in question dealt with player ratings following Wasps’ defeat to Sale Sharks in November 2019, a match best remembered for Paolo Odogwu’s red card after his outstretched shoe clattered into the head of Rohan Janse van Rensburg as he hit a high ball claimed.

Player rating stories are not popular with players. I appreciate this, and it is something that concerns me and many other journalists. I often consult with others when considering a score. But they are eternally popular and here to stay. Dai’s problem wasn’t the 5/10 rating I gave Brad Shields that day, but the accompanying words that were also included in the headline: ‘How long will wasps last with their big name blind side?’

Dai’s question

Dai didn’t say many words, but I do remember being put on the spot, “Who would you play instead of him?” I had no answer. There was also a suggestion that I take a closer look at Shields’ contribution, away from easy-to-spot tackles, high-profile offloads, or breakdowns.

Our private conversation ended and 15 minutes later the press conference followed. I have received the message. It was time to re-educate myself about Shields and take a closer look at his game.

READ MORE: Wasps player ratings v Toulouse

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one getting caught up in the hype of heightened expectations. It’s not often England goes abroad looking for an attacker to compliment their pack.

Shields was a New Zealander born and bred, a former captain of the All Blacks at Under-20 level and skipper of a Super Rugby winning Hurricanes side.

People of my generation grew up watching the influential back rows of Kiwi, from Josh Kronfeld and Zinzan Brooke, to Richie McCaw and Jerry Collins, to the more recent stars like Kieran Reid and Ardie Savea.

They were standard setters, game changers. Had my country, and the club I cover professionally, roped in the next name on that list and replaced a silver fern with a red rose?

Brad Shields and Chris Robshaw in England’s first test defeat against South Africa

Capped off by England, whom he qualified for by his parents, before even joining Wasps in 2018, Shields’ introduction to life in Premiership rugby was a broken cheekbone in a home defeat to Exeter Chiefs. A month later, appearance number two in the 52-3 humiliation came away from Leinster.

Shields would only taste victory once in his first 10 appearances in Black and Gold, as Wasps fell off the table and relegation became an increasing reality.

England called again and Shields played in three Six Nations games in 2019, before returning to his club and leading five consecutive games, winning three, to salvage something of the wreckage of a disastrous Wasps season.

A painful plantar fascia injury haunted Shields for much of that year, curtailing his hopes of playing in the Rugby World Cup as he was unable to play in any of the warm-up matches before Eddie Jones selected his team. 2019 was set to end with another setback with his foot injury and rumors were circulating about a reunion with his former Hurricanes boss Chris Boyd at Northampton Saints.

Richard Hill Comparison

In early 2020, Young parted ways from Wasps after nearly nine years and four games into Lee Blackett’s then-temporary reign as head coach, Covid struck and rugby paused for five months. For most professional rugby players, it provided an unprecedented opportunity to rest bodies and reset minds from the rigors of the sport. Shields’ shape and durability have been amazing ever since.

Following the reboot of rugby behind closed doors, Shields has played in 40 of Wasps’ 50 front-line matches, in all three back row positions and also under lock. In the past 12 months, he has only missed one of 28 games – the only omission came when 12 changes were made to the fight against Saracens in October – and he took over the captaincy following Joe Launchbury’s ACL injury in April 2021. .

Week after week, game after game, Shields goes to battle. There’s a reason his rear-end peers, like Jack and Tom Willis, Barbeary and Thomas Young, have produced moments of try-scoring, game-changing brilliance at various stages; there is a constant presence beside them, a character with the irresistible combination of an enviable skill and humble nature synonymous with New Zealand rugby players, and the grit and tenacity of great English blindsides of yesteryear. Comparisons with 2003 World Cup winner Richard Hill are understandable; someone who flies under the radar but is essential to a party’s success.

Images of Shields on one knee, bandaged, bloodied, bruised and exhausted yet smiling almost sadistically after a monumental shift to defeat Leicester Tigers were iconic. Just six days later, he went all out against Europe’s champions, Toulouse, in a performance many believe was in line with an England recall.

That ship appears to have sailed, with England’s back row resources much stronger than four summers ago when Shields took his big step. Not that Wasps will complain, they will keep their dog of war during the Six Nations period when the club competitions come thick and fast, presenting an opportunity to soar the Gallagher Premiership.

Thank goodness wasps persisted in their blind side of the big name…

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