Belfast Telegraph

Heineken Cup: No divided loyalties for happy hooker Shields

By Jonathan Drennan

Former Ulster hooker Paul Shields may have left Belfast for good over three years ago to start a new life in Northampton, firstly as a player and latterly as team manager, but he remains fiercely proud of where he is from.

He said: “I’m very happy here, my wife and I have settled in really well and the town has been very good to us, but having said that, Ulster is still very much in my blood.”

And while Shields is adamant that there will be no divided loyalties for tomorrow’s Heineken Cup quarter-final, he acknowledges that it is impossible to sever some old ties.

Shields came under the tutelage of Brian McLaughlin while a schoolboy, and the present Ulster coach made a lasting impression.

“I have never met a more thorough person, he totally transformed rugby for us at RBAI. He took a chance on me as a pretty raw prop when I was 15 and then helped me again when I left school at Instonians. Nobody ever wants to win a game more than he does and he was massively influential in my career, it’s just nice to see him doing so well with Ulster.”

Shields joined Ulster shortly after European Cup success in 1999. He was a student at Jordanstown then and had little idea that he could feasibly forge a career in rugby.

“I think I was very lucky really, professional rugby was in its infancy and I just got to go along with it. I was so proud to play for Ulster. I think back to those Friday nights for European games and I got to play with close friends in front of amazingly passionate supporters. What could be better? It was a privilege and I consider myself lucky to have had that chance.”

Shields’ career stumbled with the rapid development of Rory Best and he realised that he had to leave Ulster or face a prolonged period on the bench. An offer arrived from Northampton and he made a conscious decision to integrate with the tight-knit community after signing.

“Myself and my wife Gemma wanted to immerse ourselves in the culture of the town from the start and that meant we settled very quickly. Both of my boys were born here and the town has been extremely good to us.”

After two successful seasons at Northampton, Shields was forced to retire due to a serious neck injury, and he describes his current role with the team with a smile.

“I suppose you could say that I’m a glorified babysitter for a bunch of rugby players.”

His job involves the day-to-day running of the team and also the players’ welfare, and his gregarious personality lends itself well to the role.

He is still in close contact with many of the Ulster rugby staff, phoning David Humphreys regularly, and the godfather of one of his boys is Ulster centre Paddy Wallace.

Indeed, he is hosting Wallace’s parents this weekend, and said: “During the game I’ll have a job to do, but after the dust is settled I can’t wait to catch up with old friends, win or lose, over a beer. It’s going to be an occasion to remember.”

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