Brad Shields has returned to his roots after five years playing in Europe. Times-Age sportswriter CHRIS COGDALE caught up with the Hurricanes centurion during a team visit to Greytown’s Papawai Marae.
Brad Shields is relishing being back in the Hurricanes environment after stints in England and France.
The 100-cap Hurricane left the franchise in 2018, signing with London club Wasps. He immediately attracted the attention of the England selectors and went on to play nine internationals in 2018–19.
When Wasps went into administration in 2022, Shields, along with the other players, was made redundant, and he signed for French side USA Perpignan before returning to Wellington and playing in the 2023 NPC.
A return to the Hurricanes followed, and the 1.93m loose forward is loving being back in his home environment.
“I suppose when you go away for a few years, and you venture around a few teams and environments, it kind of makes you appreciate where your roots are and where you come from and what your values are and that sort of stuff,” Shields said. “Although the Hurricanes have moved on light years since I’ve been here and a lot of the young guys have grown an arm and a leg in terms of leadership values and that, it still feels like home and still feels like the same place I left.”
Although Shields returns with more experience under his belt, he believes the biggest difference between the UK and New Zealand was around team culture.
“I think that’s one thing we do extremely well here. We involve everyone, and we’ve got a massive focus on team culture that provides success and not that the UK doesn’t, but that was one thing that was a challenge for me to help grow in that space, and it made me appreciate where I came from.”
The visit to Papawai Marae was part of a programme to connect the players, many of whom are from outside the region, with the Hurricanes provinces. After Greytown, the players headed to Patane Marae, Napier, to help with the cleanup from Cyclone Gabrielle before taking part in a training camp.
Having been born in Masterton when his mother went into labour while visiting her parents in Carterton and having spent many Christmases and school holidays here, Shields has a strong connection to Wairarapa and the Hurricanes, but that is not the case with many of the players, and he believes these types of events are vital in building good team bonding.
“It’s huge, and over the 12 years that I’ve been involved with the Hurricanes over that stretch, it’s the first time we’ve gone this deep into the Hurricanes’ heritage, [and] the regions that connect the Hurricanes together.
“If you think about the makeup of our team, we’ve got guys from Auckland, Christchurch, Italy, South Africa, Hamilton. We’re not just all from the Hurricanes region, so it’s an amazing part of it to understand the identity and what connects us all together throughout the Hurricanes region, what the actual Hurricanes mean, what Wellington means, and I think that’s something I’ve never experienced to that depth and I guess that gives you a grounding moment and then connects with everyone else in the team.
“It’s pretty cool for me on a personal level to be back here and find out a little bit more about the region.”
Shields’ return couldn’t come at a better time with World Rugby’s 2023 Player of the Year Ardie Savea on sabbatical in Japan and All Black hooker Dane Coles having retired, and he admits they leave big shoes to fill.
“With all the respect to those two players, when players like that move along, it almost forces guys who have been in the wings to step forward and into that leadership role,” he said.
“Since I’ve been away some of the young guys, you look at the likes of Du’Plessis Kirifi, Jordie Barrett, Asafo Aumua, these guys were the quiet ones when I was leaving and to see them take steps into a leadership role, the way they address the team, the way they connect with each other, the way they hold standards high, the way they train, all that sort of stuff is vital to the success of the team.
“At the moment, we’ve got a relatively young leadership group and a relatively inexperienced team, and it forces people into situations that they might not be used to but actually grows them as people as well.”
One battle Shields is keen to see how it plays out is that between the Canes’ second most capped player, TJ Perenara, who returns after missing 2023, and World Cup halfback Cam Roigard.
“It’s healthy, isn’t it? It just means that we’re going to get the best version of a halfback every week, and if you look at other positions in the team, the back row or the loosies have also got a pretty strong challenge in our positions.
“I think it’s just going to be beneficial to the team and obviously the standard we want to go to, we want to be challenging each other, and there’s got to be competition at training every day, every week whether it’s on the field or off the field and that’s a really healthy environment to be a part of.
“It gets harder when you select a team, and you’ve got help guys who aren’t playing, but at the same time, if our goal and mindset is to win Super Rugby, we’re going to do everything we can to reach that goal.”
Looking ahead to the season, which starts with an away game with the Western Force, Shields expects the Hurricanes to be in contention when it comes to the playoffs.
“The expectation on top of that is that we go three games more, so we win our quarterfinal [and] semifinal and hopefully lift a bit of silverware.
“Looking at the squad and depth, we’ve certainly got a group of guys who can do that, and we 100 per cent believe that and the work that Clarky [coach Clark Laidlaw] and the team have done over the preseason to connect with each other it’s not just been about rugby.
“Rugby is a massive part of succeeding, but you’ve got to build team culture and we’re on our way to the start line.”