WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - OCTOBER 27: Brad Shields of Wellington holds the Championship Cup during the Mitre 10 Cup Championship Final match between Wellington and Bay of Plenty at Westpac Stadium on October 27, 2017 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Brad Shields is no villain

Wellington and Hurricanes stalwart Brad Shields may be in line to play for England at the next World Cup after allegedly turning down the chance to join the All Blacks on tour. Cue predictable outrage. But spare us the guilt trip, writes Scotty Stevenson.

If it is true Brad Shields said ‘no thanks’ to a stopgap spot in the All Blacks on their northern tour in the hope he can secure a World Cup role with the England national side, then who in their right mind could blame him? Not me, that’s for sure.

Yes, we all know the story: every Kiwi boy dreams of wearing the black jersey and representing that famous team, so much so that they will do whatever it takes to get there. It has become such a part of the mythology of the national game that when stories like this one emerge, fans can hardly believe that any player would be so brazen (read: treasonous) as to eschew the opportunity*.

The problem with mythology is that it is too convenient. Yes, the All Blacks ambition remains a powerful retention tool for New Zealand rugby but at what point along the career spectrum do ambitions need to be tempered by reality? Shields has recently watched Hurricanes teammates Ardie Savea and Vaea Fifita make the step up ahead of him, but the ‘what the hell do I have to do?’ list is much longer than that.

Since graduating from the New Zealand under-20 side, Shields – a versatile loose forward – has been passed over for All Blacks selection in favour of: Victor Vito, Sam Cane, Steven Luatua, Matt Todd, Luke Whitelock, Elliot Dixon and Liam Squire. That’s quite a list of preferred candidates to deal with before we get to the matter of Akira Ioane and Dillon Hunt, both of whom made their debuts against the French XV last week.

That list is not included to suggest Shields deserved a chance instead of any of those players. It is merely illustrative of the depth of New Zealand rugby, and a handy reference guide for those wondering why Shields may have started to think about another option to fulfill his international dreams. For six seasons he has not felt wanted. Now someone other than the All Blacks selectors is allegedly telling him he is. That’s a powerful thing for a player to hear.

To be frank, regardless of who may have said what to Shields to convince him to put his faith in a different system, here’s the eternal caveat: in international rugby a promise means piss all, and any number of eventualities may prevent Shields from ever being selected. However, there is no shortage of one-test players in this world, all of who should be incredibly proud of their achievement, but none of whom will ever have the chance to have a long-term international career for another nation. Such are rugby’s eligibility laws. And therein lies Shields’ quandary.

Should he have accepted the purported invitation to join his national side, thus bringing to fruition that most famous of Kiwi kids’ dreams? Or have the previous six years done enough to convince him that he’s not seriously in line for a more permanent All Blacks place? I’m picking it’s the latter, and as such he has done what very few people are brave enough to do: cash in the cow for a handful of magic beans.

Understandably, given the renewed rivalry between England and New Zealand and between Eddie Jones and, well, every other coach in the world, there will be some consternation at this reported decision. That’s fine and dandy. Losing talent is something New Zealand does not like one bit.

Please, though, spare me the guilt trip. Brad Shields doesn’t deserve to be painted as a villain. He deserves to go search for his own glory. He may not have done enough to be a regular All Black, but he’s certainly done enough to earn our respect.

*cough. Brad Thorn.

This story originally ran on RugbyPass.com – the premier destination for rugby fans in Asia, streaming International Test Matches including The Rugby Championship, Super Rugby and more to your device wherever you are in Asia.

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