New Zealand’s got talent
FROM BOYS . . . TO MEN IN BLACK
New Zealand’s rugby has a production line that is seemingly never-ending. But nurturing that talent is a highly organised process, as Richard Knowler
Well before Damian McKenzie, Ardie Savea and Jordie Barrett got tickets to the big time with the All Blacks, NZ Rugby possessed files that bulged with their inner secrets.
That’s how it works these days. Long gone is the era when the national selectors plucked a bolter out of obscurity and unleashed him on an unsuspecting public.
Nowadays, by the time young men get into the All Blacks, head coach Steve Hansen and his fellow selectors have clarity about what sort of cove they have to deal with.
They might not know the player personally, but the file will provide detail about his physical and psychological state, background and who vouched for him as a teenager.
New Zealand is a giant rugby factory that spits out talented young men who can do decent things with an oval ball.
By the time they’re in their late teens the best of the bunch are ripe for processing further down the chain, and that’s where NZ Rugby’s high performance player development manager Mike Anthony helps take control.
His job is to oversee the schools and age-group programmes to ensure everyone does what they can to enable NZ Rugby to keep trawling through the deep talent pool for professional athletes. They then invite players to camps, assess and track them.
‘‘If a player progresses through [to the top], if it is someone like Jordie [Barrett], we have built up a whole lot of information along the way,’’ Anthony says. ‘‘So we will share that with the All Blacks coaches, so they can look at the detail of it.
‘‘There is a whole lot of information across a lot of areas
. . . technical, tactical, physical.’’
Several of the most influential members of the All Blacks’ coaching staff assisted in the NZ under-20 programme this year. Forwards coach Mike Cron ran a tight-five clinic, backs mentor Ian Foster worked with the age-group coaches and defence boss Wayne Smith, who also takes a keen interest in assessing talent from 1st XV level, was also involved.
To keep the powerful rugby machine humming it’s vital to keep drilling for the kid who could really go places.
Former Crusaders and Canterbury hooker Matt Sexton runs the talent identification side of the high performance programme. His job is to network with people around the country to ensure players are piped into the national age-group camps.
There are close to 50 people around New Zealand who identify youngsters that deserve to be recognised at secondary school or under-20 age-group level. Some of those scouts work for provincial unions, or as independents.
The goal is obvious: to ensure no-one slips through the cracks.
Sexton was influential in NZ Rugby setting up a video portal that gets loaded with footage from national secondary school, agegroup and Super Rugby games; among other things this enables ‘‘position specific’’ coaches to assess players’ strengths and weaknesses before camps, and reduces travel costs.
Up to 250 schoolboys could be invited to attend under-17 and under-18 camps at different times of the year. Talent ID forms are completed, notes are uploaded and those good enough to transition to the under-20 grade have their details logged into the NZ Rugby system.
One-on-one interviews are also conducted with players, and there are follow-ups with coaches and parents, principals and teachers.
Sky TV’s coverage of 1st XV games is a double-edged sword.
No doubt it’s good for the teenagers’ egos, and in turn enhances their chances of getting a contract with a provincial union or Super Rugby club. But it also provides a convenient shop window for rugby league scouts.
Anthony has mixed feelings about the games being televised, concerned about the players being burdened by the expectation to perform.
He is also well aware that some young men, their reputations inflated by their deeds on the rugby fields, can morph into unbearable sports jocks.
‘‘That is something we are mindful of. That sense of entitlement, we don’t want that. We want a really balanced person that comes out, that is not only a talented rugby player but also a good person.
‘‘A massive part of our recruitment is around character. Not only do we want the right talent, but also people that can be coached, have the right work ethic and have got some resilience. Those things are critical.’’
That doesn’t mean to say a place won’t be found for a ‘roughie’: ‘‘Sometimes you might have a kid that might be a bit of a challenge, but you have got to back your environment.
‘‘If they were all perfect, then they would all be doing it. For us, we will take a bit of a punt.’’
Alerting players to the importance of mental health, and how to deal with pressure, is paramount. So too is telling the recruits they must be prepared to work or study, and have interests outside of the game.
Anthony is aware that it doesn’t do anyone any good to hot-house players to the point where they lose interest in the sport.
Scouts from rugby and rugby league outfits are often on the sidelines at 1st XV games, and for a young player there could be more money to be made by agreeing terms with an NRL club.
Anthony believes NZ Rugby can still retain players, even if they don’t open the cheque books to schoolboys; they try to win that war by explaining to the teenagers that they could have more longevity in a game they are familiar with.
‘‘So we rely on that sort of thing. We know they are being targeted younger and younger, a lot of these kids are being offered league deals when they are 15 for an extended amount of time – and then realise rugby is their passion and they want to get out.
‘‘If there is a young man out there who is passionate about rugby we will try and work with them to realise that.’’
Rightly, or wrongly, NZ Rugby are reluctant to sign the schoolboys when they are in their mid-teens. That stance might be admirable, but it could be fraught with all sorts of problems given NRL clubs have few qualms about re-stocking their rosters from such rich feeding grounds.
‘‘I suppose it is education of the parents at that age,’’ Anthony says, perhaps optimistically given how easy it would be for parents to be seduced by the prospect of their son having a job to go to after he leaves school.
‘‘Rugby league clubs will go into schools and that is hard to control. We try to ensure it doesn’t happen that early with our club or PUs and so on, so it is a challenge.
‘‘We just don’t tend to do that, because we don’t believe it is right. We have just got to try and manage the risk around those that do jump [to league], and then want to come back.’’
There is also no getting away from the fact that some players take longer to develop.
Newly minted All Black David Havili spent most of his time at Nelson College playing in the 2nd XV and wasn’t invited to any national schoolboy camps. His star only began to rise when he was picked as an injury replacement for the NZ under-20 side in 2014, making his sole appearance in the world tournament as a substitute in the third-fourth playoff game against Ireland.
‘‘The other good thing is that if they are late developers and we don’t pick them up, our pathway is pretty good to ensure they jump in,’’ Anthony said. ‘‘They might not make the schools team, or something like that, but they perform well in an under-19 tournament and all of a sudden they on the radar for the 20s.
‘‘We have to be prepared for those exceptions.’’
‘‘A massive part of our recruitment is around character. Not only do we want the right talent, but also people that can be coached, have the right work ethic and have got some resilience.’’
Mike Anthony, NZ Rugby’s high performance player development manager
Ardie Savea scores a try for Evans Bay Intermediate in a Wellington schools match in 2006. A decade later, Savea would be a regular member of All Blacks squads.
Jordie Barrett lines up a shot at goal for Francis Douglas Memorial College in New Plymouth in a 2013 match.
Damian McKenzie sets up an attack for Christ’s College against Christchurch Boys’ High in a match in 2013.