NZR’s club plan can work
There are some things which just don’t make sense: Bob Jones attempting satire, Trump, Brexit. Aussie Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce’s surprise, when his marital schemozzle is splashed over the front pages after his opposition to same-sex marriage, is another.
And let’s not even try to understand why Kim Kardashian’s bum attracts so much attention.
But New Zealand Rugby trying to find new ways to stop top players heading overseas? Makes sense to me.
One critic called it “stunning arrogance” that NZR would attempt to create a network of pre-approved clubs around the world where some players go on sanctioned playing leave, earning big bucks.
The implication was they would be given a workload that would not burn them out — and would be eligible for All Black selection when they returned home.
Okay, it sounds a bit skew-whiff. How can little, old New Zealand specify to a heavily moneyed European rugby club what to do with a player the club is paying for?
That sort of cosy collaboration doesn’t even happen all the time in New Zealand.
I can remember one All Black coach telling me how a Super Rugby coach released a well-known All Black to the national team — so battered by his franchise exertions, he was essentially unusable as far as the All Blacks were concerned.
The departures of Steven Luatua, Brad Shields, Lima Sopoaga, Charlie Ngatai, Seta Tamanivalu, Charlie Faumuina and Aaron Cruden have made it clear the queue of players lining up for lucrative overseas contracts is getting longer, younger and less persuaded by the All Black jersey and a prolonged test career. There are more to come.
Most of those above, and yet to go, are what might be called “second-tier” All Blacks but that term does not fully describe their value.
They are the depth the All Blacks have painstakingly built over the last seven to eight years and the reason why the All Blacks have led the way in changing the game from one played by 15 men to 23.
So we can’t blame NZR for trying to be innovative. The real question is: will it work?
The problem might not be finding a club or clubs with whom to do business; All Blacks returning after overseas stints have not always succeeded in regaining their former status.
Brad Thorn, Sonny Bill Williams, Leon MacDonald. That’s about it. Out of around 60 All Blacks who have headed overseas in the past 10 years, those three are the only ones who successfully returned to national colours.
Most end their rugby careers with their OE. However, the example most remembered is Luke McAlister, whose return from British rugby saw him regarded as a lesser player back on New Zealand pitches.
With the average age of want-aways dropping, that scenario could change, although it is hard to assess whether it will.
As for finding clubs to partner with, it surely depends on the deal done. Look a few years back at Saracens, the English club which became derisively known as “Saffracens” after a South African business mogul bought a 50 per cent shareholding for
$13.5 million in 2009.
It became a beacon for Springboks wanting a European sojourn. Not only did it have a South African co-owner, the chief executive was South African, as was coach and former Springbok Brendan Venter.
South Africa changed its eligibility rules so overseas players could still be selected for the Boks — a win-winwin solution.
Only problem was, the Boks have slipped into a lose-lose-lose scenario since then, although what’s wrong with South African rugby is more about ailing grassroots, a politicallyinspired quota system, a weak currency and player drain.
The South African takeover worked out well for Saracens. After some outrage when 18 players were dumped in 48 hours and a boatload of Boks hired, the club’s culture and character was changed.
They went from a team of frustrating inconsistency to winning two consecutive Champions Cups and premiership titles, with a brand of team unity involving (unusually in these days of strict professional rugby) a full-on social and touring agenda.
Of the 39 players in Sarries’ current squad, only four are South African — and they have a strong British influence, with Lions players such as Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, Mako and Billy Vunipola, George Kruis and Liam Williams among their stars.
So the right club, the right circumstances and the right deal could see an agreement hammered out somewhere along the lines NZR are envisaging.
Nor is it beyond conception that players could be released for international matches (even if that is not on the NZR to-do list yet). Springbok winger Bryan Habana said last year his contract with French club Toulon included a release clause for the Springboks — missing 32 games over four years, with Toulon’s billionaire owner not regarded as one of life’s pussycats.
No, you can’t blame the NZR for trying to protect their investment in players; we would all savage them if they didn’t.
The right club, the right circumstances and the right deal could see an agreement hammered out somewhere along the lines NZR are envisaging.
Sonny Bill Williams is one of the rare All Blacks who earned a recall after playing offshore.