Rugby Union: Shelford departs with the foundations intact: Northampton's No 8 plays his last game for the club on Saturday. Steve Bale looks at his influential legacy

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE GREAT man shrugs it off as 'too bloody bad' but this is not the way others would have preferred him to bow out. Wayne Shelford will play his last game for Northampton at London Scottish on Saturday, a mundane farewell when it might have been a cup final at Twickenham.

Ah well, you cannot have everything, but at 35 Shelford has done more or less everything that there is to do in rugby. Record-breaking undefeated New Zealand captain, All Black and Maori icon, Saint and winner, a player exalted as much for his strength of character as for the range of his skill as a No 8 - we may not see his like again.

The Saints needed to oblige by beating Leicester in the Pilkington Cup semi-final 12 days ago but failed collectively just as Shelford did individually. It has not been the valedictory season he would have wanted.

'My form has been indifferent,' he said. 'I had hamstring problems and I suppose you play as well as your body allows you. There comes a time when you draw the line, when young guys are beating you to the rucks and mauls by two or three metres. But that's not to say it always happens.'

This is the self-appraisal to which Shelford has always subjected himself and his teams. An abiding memory is of his disappointment at his New Zealand team even after they had beaten Wales 52-3 in the first Test in Christchurch in 1988. Yes, disappointment.

These were Shelford's golden years, when he succeeded David Kirk as captain after the All Blacks had won the inaugural World Cup in 1987 and led New Zealand to a 14-Test unbeaten run. Shelford's was not a cerebral captaincy, though his tactical appreciation has perhaps been underestimated; more important, as Northampton have found to their benefit, is the unsurpassed personal example.

If your life depended on a game of rugby, Shelford is the man you would want at your side. There is an aura about him, an indefinable quality his own Maori people call mana. 'He is one of those people who has natural authority,' Barrie Corless, Saints' coaching director, said.

New Zealanders tend to prefer their idols with feet of clay and after the

21-18 defeat of Scotland in 1990 Shelford was contentiously dropped, never to play international rugby again. When New Zealand went on to lose three games under Gary Whetton's captaincy, Shelford's point appeared to have been made for him, even if the victors on each occasion were the magnificent Australians.

'Following the '87 World Cup, 1988 and '89 were great years but if we weren't winning by big margins the media and the public were always looking for reasons why and in some respects in 1990 they were looking for scapegoats,' Shelford said. 'Comparing my form from 1989 to 1990, it was only two games and I got dropped.

'It was disappointing but life doesn't stop because you are dropped from a rugby team. I thought that I had another season, or maybe two, in Test football in me. I'd like to have played in the 1991 World Cup and then given it away straight after that.'

Shelford finished with 22 caps; he played on a losing side only once, when gaining his second cap in Nantes in 1986, a match whose savagery left him with lacerated testicles as well as severely wounded pride. After 1990 his ambition remained sufficiently intact for him to put the All Black trials ahead of Northampton's cup final appearance against Harlequins, but there was no place for him in the '91 World Cup and his devotion has latterly been more or less exclusively to the Saints.

Not withstanding the curmudgeonly attitude of authority, Northampton's far-sightedness - in appointing Corless, in hosting Shelford, in bringing in another Kiwi, Glenn Ross, as their coach - is why they have been converted from no-hopers with a famous past to serious contenders with a bright future.

'We wouldn't want the situation where a club is flooded out with New Zealanders but at the same time there are so many benefits from having them over here,' Corless said. 'If you shut yourselves off and don't have these sort of contacts, it's to the detriment of the game in England.'

Still, at least Northampton have had three good years out of Shelford and, now that he is going home, they do not intend to seek a replacement. For one thing, the qualification period - virtually six months, or three-quarters of a season - for overseas players is now too Draconian to make it worthwhile.

However, the Kiwi connection will be maintained through Ross for another season (the club hope it will be two) and Northampton have a player exchange which will take two of their under-21s Down Under during the summer. The inculcation of New Zealand attitudes, the sort of thing which Shelford personifies, is a different matter altogether and even after three years Shelford is not sure he has totally succeeded.

'It's been a challenge because the attitude of British players is so different,' he said. 'At Northampton it's getting better. The players are turning up on time, they are disciplined in the way they dress to go to games. They don't turn up in jeans.

'Their personal discipline is a lot better and if you do that you become more disciplined on the field as well. Over the last three years Northampton have been building the foundations. Now that they've done that, the club can look to putting the walls up, and when that gets completed they could be champions.'

Much of the above may seem a statement of the 'bleedin' obvious', as Tim Rodber, one of Shelford's proteges, once put it. Rodber meant this admiringly because the obvious is not always easily grasped even by international rugby players.

Shelford faces a round of farewell parties more debilitating than any match before he and his family leave on 18 May for a week's holiday in Malaysia. They will arrive in Auckland on 26 May, the very day the British Isles meet North Harbour, the province he represented 80 times. Playing the Lions is just about the only thing Wayne Shelford never did.

(Photograph omitted)