Meet Paul Shields – Northampton Saints’ head of recruitment who is searching for the next Yato

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As Northampton’s head of recruitment and retention, Paul Shields spends a lot of his day shifting through a snowstorm of spreadsheets and video footage. Every so often inside the blizzard, he will identify a gold nugget.

Shields remembers when he first laid eyes on Samu Manoa, then an electrician and part-time rugby player. He immediately told the then forwards coach Dorian West to drop whatever he was doing to come see this giant Polynesian back row too. When Manoa left Northampton a couple of years later, he signed a contract for Toulon that made him the best paid player in the world. 

Those type of hidden gems are rare because there are so few hiding places in professional rugby but as Shields says “they do exist, it’s our job to find them”. Nearly every Premiership club will have its own head of recruitment who are scouring the same markets. And they are sophisticated operations as Shields patiently explains to Telegraph Sport, especially with the squeeze of the reducing salary cap this season. “It is like a gyroscope that is always moving in different directions,” Shields said.”‘The parameters are constantly changing.”  

Whereas once rugby recruitment was done in a pub crossing ins and outs on the back of beer mat, now it is all databases and spreadsheets. Unlike in football, there is no central scouting hub you can subscribe to. All the information has to be compiled manually which in Northampton’s case is done by Shields, taking in leagues from across the world. Tracked players will have records of their age, club, a rough estimate of their salary. Foreign players must either have three international caps or an ancestral link to play in the Premiership which requires a lot of detective work and a vast network of contacts.

Of course, Shields is not operating in isolation. He will have daily conversations with Chris Boyd, the director of rugby, around the continuing evolution of the squad and with Julia Chapman, the finance director over budgets. Saints have a depth chart in every position planned through to 2025, but that is subject to constant flux. For example, a year ago Northampton had not planned for the emergence of promising full back George Hendy, who is now in the England Under-20s squad. 

Once they have agreed which areas need strengthening then Shields will get to work. The starting point will be whether the player is frontline, cover or up-and-coming so Shields knows what budget he is working with. Then it will be a case of knowing the style of player Boyd wants. “Say we want a No 8,” Shields said. “So I will speak with the coaches go and say ‘do you want to skillful No 8? Do you want a big heavy ball carrier? Do you want someone who can play different positions?’ You need to have that real understanding for what the coaches want so I’m giving them something that is relevant and I’m not wasting time.”

The homework has to be thorough. As Shields, a former hooker for Ulster, Northampton and Ireland, jokes even he looked a world beater on his highlights package. “You have to watch whole games to get a real good feel for how good they are and what they’re capable of,” Shields said. “It’s really important to look for the things that they can do and not to focus on the things that they they can’t do.”

Shields will also delve into his network of contacts to establish whether they are the right fit for the changing room. “The rugby world is quite small in that regard, if someone has a bad character then that travels fast.” Then he will present a shortlist for Boyd to consider. 

Getting high-profile players such as George North, Louis Picamoles and Dan Biggar to put pen to paper is among the most rewarding aspects of the role. The signing of Biggar was almost scuppered by one of Shields’ young sons pointedly telling the Wales fly-half that Jonathan Sexton was the best stand off in the Six Nations. “He took it very well to be fair,” Shields said.

The flip side is that Shields must also handle departures when the numbers on his spreadsheet suddenly become humans with families. “It is the nature of the beast,” Shields said. “Sometimes rugby can be a very ruthless industry. And you have to make decisions that are in the best interest of the club. And unfortunately, sometimes that means that someone will no longer be continuing their journey with you and it’s really sad.”

While Shields’ job title is split between recruitment and retention, the club’s philosophy under a Boyd places a premium on developing their own talent. Recruitment has to complement retention rather than the other way round “We see ourselves as a development club, with a focus on developing players, and we want to continue to do that,” Shields said. “We are constantly looking further afield and always considering the long term sustainability of the club from producing its own players. You’ve got to be clever and forward thinking about your recruitment and make sure you invest in the right spots and you’re aware of the knock-on effects. It’s not just for the current year, it’s for the year after and possibly the year after that.”

Behind Shields’ desk, the “next Yato” is written on a whiteboard in reference to the outstanding Fijian flanker. He declines to identify which player this is but confirmed that new signings are on the horizon. “We’re definitely putting the wheels in motion about freshening the squad up, improving themselves and bringing in some new faces.”

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