JOHANNESBURG (AP) — England ignored the murmurs of disapproval and skirted round its own selection policy to fast-track New Zealand-born forward Brad Shields into its match 23 for the first test in South Africa.
Coach Eddie Jones put Shields on the bench and in line for his test debut in the series opener at Ellis Park in Johannesburg on Saturday, less than a week after he joined up with the squad for the first time and introduced himself to his new teammates.
It's a decision that renewed the debate over players switching allegiance in rugby, yet made perfect tactical sense.
With England hoping to halt a sudden slump of four straight defeats, and having to do it in one of the fiercest environments in test rugby, the experienced Super Rugby campaigner brings knowledge of the South African conditions and team.
"Ellis Park is the spiritual home of South African rugby and the Springboks play to another level on that ground," Jones said on Thursday, "so we know we have to raise our game physically early on and be enormously accurate in the way we play.
"Brad (Shields) is a good workmanlike player who has fitted in well off the field. It's easy to fit into a squad when people know your attitude is right and he's brought that to the table. He's worked very hard to learn what he's needed to learn."
Shields, who flew straight from New Zealand to South Africa to earn his call-up, has played no domestic rugby in England, which normally doesn't pick players who don't play at home. Yet, England slipped around that obstacle on the basis that he will join Wasps when he finishes the Super Rugby season with the Wellington-based Hurricanes.
Shields' decision to play for his parents' country of birth and turn his back on the All Blacks was poorly received in New Zealand. It also provoked a response from World Rugby vice chairman and former Argentina international Agustin Pichot, who wrote on Twitter that the game was "losing something" with Shields — a New Zealand youth international — switching to England.
But he's not the first player to represent a country he wasn't born in. Most top international rugby teams have or have had naturalized players. New Zealand has had many.
England selected another two in its forward pack for Saturday — Vunipola brothers Mako and Billy — to help meet the physical challenge of the Springboks, which tends to go up a notch or two at Ellis Park.
Mako starts at loosehead for his 50th test and Billy returns for his first game for England in a year following injury. Owen Farrell will captain England from inside center in place of regular skipper Dylan Hartley.
England, which won back-to-back Six Nations titles in 2016 and 2017 in a dream start under Australian Jones, has suddenly hit hard times just over a year out from the World Cup, conceding over 60 points to the Barbarians last month in a fourth successive loss.
South Africa hit even harder times.
The Springboks had their worst season ever under former coach Allister Coetzee in 2016, then lurched through more embarrassing defeats in 2017.
Former Springboks loose forward Rassie Erasmus took over as coach and director of rugby this year, charged with repairing the Boks' badly damaged reputation.
His most significant move was to make flanker Siya Kolisi captain, the first black player to be appointed test captain and a widely popular move.
For the first of three tests against England, Erasmus picked three players for their test debuts in the starting 15 — 6-foot-9 (2.05-meter) lock RG Snyman and young wings Aphiwe Dyantyi and S'busiso Nkosi — and recalled No. 8 Duane Vermeulen, scrumhalf Faf de Klerk and fullback Willie le Roux.
Erasmus said the Springboks were "desperate for success."
South Africa: Willie le Roux, S'busiso Nkosi, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Handre Pollard, Faf de Klerk; Duane Vermeulen, Jean-Luc du Preez, Siya Kolisi (captain), Franco Mostert, RG Snyman, Trevor Nyakane or Wilco Louw, Bongi Mbonambi, Tendai Mtawarira. Reserves: Akker van der Merwe, Steven Kitshoff, Wilco Louw or Thomas du Toit, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Ivan van Zyl, Elton Jantjies, Warrick Gelant.
England: Elliot Daly, Jonny May, Henry Slade, Owen Farrell (captain), Mike Brown, George Ford, Ben Youngs; Billy Vunipola, Tom Curry, Chris Robshaw, Nick Isiekwe, Maro Itoje, Kyle Sinckler, Jamie George, Mako Vunipola. Reserves: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Joe Marler, Harry Williams, Brad Shields, Nathan Hughes, Ben Spencer, Piers Francis, Denny Solomona.