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Should Brad Shields play for England?

Bulls' captain Burger Odendaal tackles Hurricanes' captain Brad Shields. (PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP/Getty Images)
Expert
15th May, 2018
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5693 Reads

Keep Out! That is the sign the UK is now posting to the rest of the world, politically and culturally. It is building fences, not taking them down.

Following hard on the heels of the Brexit vote to leave the European Union, there has been the so-called ‘Windrush scandal’.

The flagship MV Empire Windrush ferried 500 men, women and children from the Caribbean islands into Tilbury Docks on June 22 1948, in response to chronic labour shortages after the Second World War.

The immigrants who arrived on the Windrush formed the advance guard of an estimated 500,000 Commonwealth citizens who were welcomed with open arms by the UK government, and who became a foundation stone in post-war efforts to rebuild the economy.

The landing cards, which symbolically established the Windrush generation’s right to live and work in the UK, were destroyed by order of the Home Office in 2010, only for a new immigration law to be passed two years later requiring documentary proof of their right to remain in the country. Keep out!

It is estimated that 57,000 UK citisens have been affected. In some cases, people who have lived, worked and raised families in the country for over 50 years have been sent letters declaring that they are in the country illegally.

That administrative and political catastrophe is a sad sign of the times, and an unwelcome return of the ‘islander mentality’ in a nation that was supposed to have outgrown it.

And yet in European rugby, the opposite is true.

It was only when I sat down to begin my review of Top 14 winners Racing 92 (in preparation for Leinster’s European Champions Cup final) that I realised just how far European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) had bent over backwards to accommodate foreign imports. It does so chiefly for the benefit of the English and French clubs who drove the changes in tournament structure back in 2014.

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EPCR’s rule 3.7 states that only two non-Europeans may be selected in a matchday 23 man squad. That sounds fine – until you consider that only players from New Zealand, Australia and Argentina are considered non-Europeans!

South Africans, Pacific Islanders (and European players from outside the country of origin) are not counted against the foreign import cap, and this has the effect of giving greater leverage to the buying power of English and French clubs.

At Leinster, there are only three foreign players in a squad of 45, and 94 per cent of the squad is home-grown – Isa Nacewa was naturalised a long time ago and would have been capped by Ireland had he not played a solitary game for Fiji back in 2003!

The presence of Scott Fardy, James Lowe and Jamison Gibson-Park (all from New Zealand and Australia) have resulted in ‘musical chairs’ selection, with one of the three always having to be left out of the matchday squad. James Lowe was the unlucky player in both the final and the semi-final against Scarlets.

Racing 92 experienced no such problems. At full strength, they could accommodate Dan Carter and Juan Imhoff as their non-Europeans, and still field another six foreign imports in Ben Tameifuna (Tonga) or Census Johnston (Samoa), Ole Avei (Samoa), Leone Nakarawa (Fiji), Donnacha Ryan (Ireland), Pat Lambie (South Africa) and Vasil Kakovin (Georgia) because they don’t count against the cap.

The deeper you go, the more weighted towards English and French club success the situation becomes.

Ben Tameifuna was a junior All Black, played Super Rugby for the Chiefs and was considered good enough to be picked for the wider All Blacks training squad back in 2012. But because he has now played three Tests for Tonga, he is no longer considered non-European.

The case of Racing number 13 Virimi Vakatawa is as complex and fluid as Tameifuna’s. Vakatawa is a Fijian from the South island of New Zealand who was picked for the French national team by Guy Noves in January 2016, at a time when he was under central contract only to the FFR, not to a Top 14 club. He thus became ‘French’ before he was ever fully integrated into the nation’s club rugby.

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Now we have the case of Hurricane Brad Shields, who will probably represent England in the June Test series against South Africa without having played a single game for the English club he projects to join later in the year, Wasps.

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The fact that Shields will return to New Zealand to rejoin the Hurricanes for the final stages of Super Rugby after the tour finishes makes his international selection more, rather than less, of an anomaly.

There is no question of Shields’ eligibility – both of his parents are English. The real issue is that he is an exclusive product of the New Zealand rugby system, having played all his representative rugby for Wellington, the Hurricanes and New Zealand under 20s.

England is, like New Zealand, the only top-tier rugby nation which prohibits the selection of overseas-based players for its national team. So the question for England orbits around trust in the products of its own age-group and club systems.

Ex-England coach Sir Clive Woodward’s recent article in a UK newspaper, phrased it as follows:

“Our willingness to scour the world just demonstrates a lack of confidence in our own system and is really a ‘fingers-crossed’ approach to selection…

“Why not promote from the English game, the Premiership and the RFU’s outstanding Under 20 system? Let’s make a virtue of that, give priority at all times to those who England have produced…

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“England reportedly want to pluck Shields out of the Super Rugby tournament, fly him 12,000 miles to here and then another 5500 to South Africa, before he returns to Wellington to complete his contract there. It makes zero sense and is intrinsically wrong.”

All very well – or so you would have thought. You would be wrong.

It is a sign of the prevailing ‘Windrush’ confusion in England that the same Clive Woodward argued just as convincingly for the selection of overseas-based Steffon Armitage before the 2015 World Cup, stating that “we have to rid ourselves of this prejudice against selecting England players abroad”.

Woodward backed Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal in calling it a “stupid… misplaced protectionism”, even though England could neither monitor Armitage’s training and dietary regime, nor be guaranteed his release for training camps and tours.

Woodward is on firmer ground when he questions whether Shields is good enough to justify his promotion over the likes of Don Armand and Dave Ewers from the Exeter Chiefs: “Is selecting Shields really going to make that much difference when playing against the best teams in the world?”

There is a reason Shields has not become an All Black, and why he has dropped down to England’s later pick in the ‘national draft’. It is nothing to do with his character and leadership qualities, which by all accounts, are of true benefit to any side.

Having examined Shields’ performance for the Hurricanes against the Blues over the weekend, I believe it is connected to a lack of outstanding point-of-difference in his playing attributes.

According to my stats, Shields contributed 12 carries, 13 tackles, five lineout takes and two turnovers on the ground to the Canes’ win. There is no problem with either Shields’ work-rate or his ability to play as effectively in the 80th minute as the first – the number of his involvements was sustained in all four quarters. He is as honest as the day is long.

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Lift the lid on those impressive figures and a slightly different picture emerges, however. Only one carry was for significantly positive yardage, and there were two fumbles, one close to the opposition goal-line. There was one dominant tackle compared to three misses, one of which resulted directly in a score for the Blues. Shields also gave away two penalties, one of which was for detaching from the scrum with the Canes five metres from the Blues’ line.

On the positive side of the slate, Shields is an all-rounder who can do a bit of everything. At his best, he can use his feet well before the tackle when taking the ball up:

He is also a good lineout athlete who was the target of choice when the Hurricanes went to drive the maul close in the Blues’ red zone.

On balance, Shields is probably better in defence than he is in attack. He made a couple of excellent tackles on Blues’ fullback Matt Duffie on kick-chase, and made one dominant hit-and-rob close to the breakdown:

He is handy on-ball, and confirmed his durability with a second turnover against a one-man cleanout in the second period:

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He also demonstrated impressive defensive technique at the maul with the Blues pressing for a score:

Shields has inserted himself into the gap between the Blues’ receiver and his front-lifter and he stays there long enough for #3 Jeffrey Toomaga-Allen to join him and widen it to a tipping point:

The Blues’ maul has broken into two halves – and one half has collapsed completely – because of the work done by Shields and JTA, and the chance of a try has evaporated with it.

On the negative side, Shields had consistent problems handling Sonny Bill Williams on simple switch plays throughout the game. Williams used a quick shift of the feet to beat him one-on-one for the Blues first try (0:26 on the reel):

At the crucial moment, Shields is too upright and flat-footed to prevent Williams making his move and achieving separation:

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The play was almost repeated word-for-word in the second half:

Here, Shields just about manages to hang on to enough of Williams to stop him from scoring the try himself, although the Blues occupied the position for long enough for a try to result in any case (1:22 on the reel).

The two fumbles on pick-and-go plays also raised some questions about the reliability of Shields’ hands in heavy contact:

There is also a broader issue in terms of Shields’ fitness for the England attacking pattern. England tend to use their #6 closer to the breakdown, while the Canes will spread Shields further out towards touch:

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Looking further into the future, it is doubtful whether Shields can unseat Courtney Lawes as England’s first-choice at number six for the big bust-up at Twickenham later this Autumn. Lawes is essentially a bigger, nastier version with exactly the point-of-difference Shields lacks:

Summary
Confusion reigns in the UK over the status of ‘foreign imports’ in all aspects of the culture. As the Windrush outrage showed, we can no longer remember who belongs in the country, or why they came in the first place!

The same confusion exists in English and French rugby. The EPCR non-European regulations only appear to limit imports to two players. In reality, they clearly favour the English and French clubs who can sustain a much larger quota of top-flight players from South Africa, the Pacific Islands and other parts of Europe than their Celtic cousins, without counting the cost in their matchday squads.

The Brad Shields case, and Clive Woodward’s contradictory attitudes towards overseas-based players, illustrates a similar confusion. On the one hand, it’s “intrinsically wrong” to select a player who has not been developed within the English system; on the other “squad selections must never be made on any criteria other than performance and merit”, regardless of geography.

Should players who ply their trade outside England (or for that matter New Zealand) be allowed to represent it when they are not currently playing for a club in England?

What does Shields’ selection say about the youth and club development programs in the English Premiership which are constantly fuelled by RFU incentives?

Will Shields be first choice when Courtney Lawes returns from injury, or if Eddie Jones decides to pick Chris Robshaw at number six for the Tests against South Africa? Will he feel the move to Wasps is worthwhile then?

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Over the course of time, it may prove to be a move he has cause to regret.