Only a few months ago an England team-sheet containing Brad Shields and Danny Cipriani and lacking Chris Robshaw would have been about as likely as Eddie Jones wearing a cravat. Fashions are changing within international rugby, however, and the newly arrived Shields and much discussed Cipriani have both been invited to add a dash of something different in Bloemfontein this weekend.
Jones did not pluck the 27-year-old Shields out of Super Rugby on a whim and, sure enough, the Hurricanes captain has now been whisked into the starting XV ahead of Robshaw, virtually ever present since Stuart Lancaster made him his captain in 2012. Cipriani is on the bench but he has not featured in a previous Test under Jones and his mere presence in the matchday 23 is a further sign of England’s desire to change things up.
With South Africa 1-0 up in this three-Test series this is no time to be playing safe, particularly in the back row. Even Robshaw would concede he has dipped below his usual consistent standards of late and another fast-paced contest at altitude is an ideal moment to discover if the New Zealand-reared Shields can make the unusual leap from Super Rugby stalwart to influential northern hemisphere Test regular.
With his English-born parents, Nigel and Danielle, set to fly in for the occasion, it is also a chance for the new man to underline his own commitment to the red rose cause having been involved with England for under a fortnight. Even he has been taken aback by how swiftly he has been fast-tracked but is understandably keen for the sceptics to know all about the English blood flowing through his veins.
“My grandparents were very English and there was a lot of English heritage in the way we were brought up – all the teaspoons on the wall, chip butties on Sunday afternoon. My parents moved [to New Zealand] when they were young but they definitely made sure we knew where we came from.”
Shields’ parents were originally from Hull and Essex respectively and his aunt lives in Marlow, making last Saturday’s anthems at Ellis Park before his debut off the bench a memorable moment. “Singing the anthem was pretty special because that’s my blood heritage and it’s where my family is from. I didn’t expect to be named in the squad and my heart really started beating when I found out.”
This weekend will feel even sweeter. “Words can’t really describe it. It’s every man’s dream to pull on an international jersey and start. To have your name read out [in the starting XV] is a level up. I’m 100 per cent committed. If I didn’t want to be here, I’d have said no but I really want to take my skills to the next level .”
If the precise date when Jones first inquired about Shields’ availability remains unclear – both player and coach said they could not remember exactly when contact was made – the qualities the England management have chosen to invest in are no secret. Their latest recruit brings character, leadership, work-rate and decent line-out skills; with Robshaw struggling and the lanky Pieter-Steph du Toit elevated to the Springboks back row, Jones’s toughest job was telling the 65-times capped Harlequins flanker, whom he insists has not been entirely pensioned off. “I’m sure everyone out there admires the courage and tenacity he plays with every week. I’m sure they’re not saying he’s written off, I’m sure they’re saying he’s still got a chance to play for England.”
Compared with the first Test, however, the balance of the England pack looks slightly improved, with Joe Launchbury back in the second row and Nathan Hughes and Mark Wilson on the bench. The starting back division is unchanged but the possible need to conjure something in the final quarter to keep the series alive has seen Cipriani preferred to Piers Francis.
“He’s desperate to play for England and he’s really worked hard,” said Jones, citing Cipriani’s “diligence” on tour as a factor in his selection. “He’s dropped some body fat, got fitter and made the transition from playing like a club player to playing like an international player. That’s why he deserves this opportunity.
Cipriani, at this stage of his career, has little other option but to grasp this belated straw with both hands, even it is only for a handful of minutes with England trailing and South Africa pounding at the visitors’ line. By that stage Jones will probably already know whether his side have absorbed the lessons of their first Test collapse and overcome their collective brain fade in Johannesburg. “It’s important we play well,” added the head coach, describing it as “an important dress rehearsal” for next year’s Rugby World Cup. “It’s like a World Cup semi. If you win you go forward, if you lose that’s the end of the tournament. It’s great practice for us.”
A big day also looms for the prop Tendai Mtawarira, who is due to become only the sixth Springbok to win 100 Test caps. In addition to Du Toit’s selection at flanker, there is one other change to the home side with Frans Malherbe named at tight-head.