NZR’s club plan can work

Herald on Sunday - - IN OTHER NEWS -

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.

Getty Im­ages

Sonny Bill Wil­liams is one of the rare All Blacks who earned a re­call af­ter play­ing off­shore.

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