It is approaching nightfall in Perpignan and Brad Shields is pulling out of his driveway to find a picturesque part of town for a photoshoot. Perhaps a local chateau or a quaint Christmas market.
He has spent the last couple of hours at his new home, reflecting on a turbulent couple of months that tipped his life upside down. He is still finding his bearings, relying on the sat-nav for every turn, and hits a dead-end in a disused railway yard.
‘This probably sums it up,’ he jokes, with gallows humour, standing in front of an abandoned carriage. ‘Funnily enough, my parents were looking at coming down for the holidays but it’s a nightmare with all the train and plane strikes.’
Brad Shields is back on track after finding a new club at Perpignan after the demise of Wasps
Shields is still angry over the demise of Wasps after spending four years at the club
On the aptly named Rue de la Memoire, he talks through his journey that began with his arrival from New Zealand in 2017 as Eddie Jones’s ‘project player’ and ended with his club, Wasps, going bankrupt.
Has he settled in yet? ‘Nah,’ he answers, in his laidback Kiwi accent. ‘It was flesh. Everything just happened so quickly. I remember the date: Monday October 17. It’s always going to stick in my head; the day we were told we had gone into administration.
‘It was disbelief and shock. There were some articles in the press and we put a message in the leadership group saying, “What’s going on here?” The next day we had a meeting saying they were giving us some time to refinance.
‘It was all pretty optimistic but we got an email on the Sunday night, the 16th, about a meeting on the Monday.
‘We knew something wasn’t right and then this random bloke, the administrator, addresses us all in the canteen and says your employment stops today. It was just “What?” Tears. Everything’s just ripped away at the click of your fingers.’
Shields’s young family have terminated their house lease in Leamington. His children, Charlie and Franco, have enrolled at the local bilingual school for next year.
Shields’ young family had to terminate their house lease after he was made redundant
‘It’s not just the rugby, it’s your life,’ he continues. ‘You commit everything to the club, put your kids in school, sort out healthcare. The more you look back on it, the resentment towards how it was handled… not just the club — Premiership Rugby, the RFU — how did it get to that?
‘Within the space of a couple of weeks you’ve basically said “Yes” to a contract in another country and here we are. You’ve got to figure out how to get out of the lease on your house, move all of your furniture, find a new place. That all happened within 72 hours. It’s that or being out of a job.
‘We were in the Premiership final in 2020 and two years later the club is no more. I still can’t compute that. Guys have put their heart and soul into the team and they’re still owed money. Everyone at the clubs is owed 17 days’ wages and there’s another group of players who are owed image rights, which is a decent package.
‘There’s a fund there that should be mine to be used to look after my family in retirement. Livid is an understatement of how I feel.’
A pool of Wasps players have gone to France. Shields has already faced Tom and Jack Willis in the Top 14, while Ali Crossdale has also joined Perpignan and lives 15 minutes up the road.
But this is not the first time Shields has moved his entire life. He won nine England caps after moving to the UK from Wellington in 2017, qualifying through his English grandparents, but missed out on his goal of selection for the 2019 World Cup.
Shields ‘can’t compute’ what’s happened to Wasps two years after they were in the Premiership final
So how does he reflect on his time as Jones’s ‘project player’?
‘Short project!’ he quips. ‘I’d love to have played more but at the end of the day, Eddie gave me an opportunity and I’m forever grateful to play international rugby. Some people were supportive, others were like, “How are you allowed to do that?” I understand that but it’s an opportunity I was never going to say no to.
‘The Wasps thing has kind of put a dampener on the whole experience. What’s happened at the club is all I can think about. At one point I said to my wife Lou in a bit of anger, “I should’ve just stayed where I was”.
‘She quickly corrected me and said, “Hold on a second, you’ve achieved your goal of playing international rugby, we’ve had kids here and look at the life experience”. I don’t regret leaving New Zealand at all. In a year or two I will look back and think it was an amazing achievement. Mission accomplished. You think about the people you’ve met, the friends you’ve made, your jerseys from Twickenham. They’re things that will stay with you forever.’
On the bookshelf in his living room, Shields’s England cap is proudly displayed alongside some family treasures. The jerseys are still in the garage.
‘I’m not sure whether to put them up or not because I don’t know how long we’ll be here. I don’t want to make holes in the wall and then fill them in. I look at that cap and those awards from Wasps and New Zealand every day and it reminds me to be grateful to be where I am.’
Although Shields is still eligible for selection, he is realistic that his England ambitions are slim.
Shields won nine caps but has admitted his chances of playing for his country again are slim
‘I was pretty shocked they got rid of Eddie,’ he admits. ‘He’s got a good record in World Cup years. He obviously pushes you to the brink mentally and physically but he’s trying to get the best out of his players than him. I’d rather be getting beasted and sent back than not be involved. Some enjoy his approach and others do n’t. He’s unbelievably smart. It’s old school but mixed with the most modern thought about rugby.
‘If anyone’s made to take over it’s Steve Borthwick, because he’s worked with most of the players already. Steve was my forwards coach and he’s so smart with his rugby. He sent me a couple of books about mindset. One about martial arts, one about tennis. Doing the same thing over and over again in pressure situations.
‘He coaches habits and details. His level of detail and homework on other teams is next-level. Small subtleties. What separates the good teams from the bad teams are things like taking your ball speed down from three seconds to two seconds. How to catch at a lineout — as silly as that sounds, getting an “early catch” by putting your hands towards the ball, rather than catching it on your chest, so you can get the ball away a split second earlier. He’s there to win.’
Shields isn’t looking too far ahead. ‘I’m essentially playing for a contract, here or somewhere else,’ he says. ‘It’s a new team, new feel and I have to reinvent myself a bit. There’s been resentment, sadness and anger but now I’ve got no choice but to start fresh.’