New Zealand Rugby is only just winning the battle to retain talent, but they will strike a massive blow if they can keep Rieko Ioane
THE NUMBER OF NEW ZEALAND PLAYERS HEADING OFFSHORE IS RISING BUT STILL NOT AT A LEVEL THAT HAS ANYONE PANICKING. THAT SAID, THERE IS ONE MAN WHO, SHOULD HE DEPART, WOULD CHANGE EVERYTHING.
The player market is a tough one to read. To some it looks like the volume of players shifting offshore is nothing to worry about it.
Others interpret things with a gloomier view and worry that too many are leaving and that New Zealand is on the cusp of becoming much like South Africa, where most of the best players have long fled to Europe.
Who is right? How best to see the last few years and make sense of them?
The answer is that both views have some validation. Since the last World Cup – excluding those such as Dan Carter, Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu who announced their plans before the tournament – 20 players who have featured for the All Blacks have left for offshore clubs or have agreed to do so.
That is a considerably higher figure than the corresponding period after the 2011 World Cup.
In the two years after that tournament, the All Blacks who left were Adam Thomson, Piri Weepu, Tamati Ellison, Ali Williams, Zac Guildford and Hosea Gear. And from that list, Weepu was unlikely to have held his place due to his difficulties in playing at the pace the All Blacks wanted; Williams was all but broken and Guildford had enormous personal issues that were consuming him.
The All Blacks said farewell to this group with no major concern about what their departures would mean for the longer term.
All those departing had been good professionals, but their best years were behind them. The important thing was that the players that mattered, the players the All Blacks wanted to keep, all stayed.
They had already locked in Dan Carter and Richie McCaw before the 2011 World Cup on four-year deals. They had Kieran Read through to 2015, along with Sam Whitelock, Jerome Kaino, Aaron Smith, Aaron Cruden, Sonny Bill Williams, Ben Smith, Tony Woodcock and Dane Coles.
There were maybe only two offshore departures that bothered the All Blacks. One was Charles Piutau who signed with Ulster at the beginning of 2015.
He was a player they felt was on the cusp of developing into something special and would have had he committed for longer. The other was Colin Slade who had shown throughout 2014 and 2015 that he was a supremely talented utility back who was constantly improving. On the eve of the World Cup, though, he signed with Pau.
But to effectively lose just two players in the four-year cycle was a massive victory for New Zealand Rugby.
However, two and a bit years into this cycle and the picture is significantly different.
One part of it remains the same – which is that a significant number of senior players have been locked in to contracts that will keep them here through to the World Cup.
Owen Franks, Coles, Retallick, Whitelock, Sam Cane, Read, Aaron Smith, Beauden Barrett, Ben Smith, Williams, Israel Dagg and Nehe Milner-Skudder all had offers to leave – or would have had they been interested – and all opted to hang around for another crack at the World Cup.
But the battle to keep those on the fringes of the squad is proving harder in this cycle than it was last.
The volume of traffic leaving is considerably higher. Those who have gone or are going include: Cruden, Charlie Faumuina, Steven Luatua, Lima Sopoaga, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Victor Vito, Charlie Ngatai and Malakai Fekitoa.
And in all honesty, the All Blacks were keen to keep them all. It’s a little harsh and misleading to call them fringe players as the All Blacks selectors felt all of that group had more to offer and that none had reached their potential.
Not only that, but the likes of Cruden and Faumuina were rock solid regulars in the match day 23 and their skills and experience were valuable. Being an integral member of the match day squad can’t be considered fringe.
“Patience is a virtue they say,” All Blacks
BUT AGAIN IT IS ALWAYS THEIR CHOICE AND ONE MAN’S CHOICE IS ANOTHER’S OPPORTUNITY.’
coach Steve Hansen told NZ Rugby World last year. “Charlie is going overseas and he has another World Cup in him. But the lure of going overseas is pretty big. What frustrates you the most is not that they are going but that they are losing the opportunity to actually wear the jersey which is what they wanted to do. To not just have a short career but to have a great career which is what they wanted to do.
“But again it is always their choice and one man’s choice is another’s opportunity.”
Luatua was one of those players who frustrated Hansen, as the big loose forward played the best football of his career last year after he announced he’d be leaving for Bristol.
If he’d stayed in New Zealand...who knows, he could have become a great All Black – certainly added to his tally of caps and pushed up his market value.
Sopoaga is the latest to have decided that Europe is for him. He revealed in January that he had signed with Wasps, which was a significant blow for the All Blacks.
Sopoaga had taken over from Cruden as the back-up No 10 and had learned the art of coming off the bench in the final quarter and making a major contribution.
Test football is a difficult art to learn and there is no position trickier than first-five. It is an altogether more difficult skill again to learn how to come off the bench in that position, and there is no doubt that Sopoaga had made good progress in that regard.
He’d got himself to a level where the All Blacks had absolute faith in him and were confident that if he committed through to the 2019 World Cup, he could be an integral part of the team.
But Wasps came in with an offer worth a reported $1 million a season and Sopoaga weighed it all up and decided it was too good to turn down. Hansen understood because he gets that young players these days can’t always find it within themselves to think longer term.
“It is tricky because the current generation want everything now,” he says. “They are used to things happening instantly. You pick up an iPad or your phone and there is your email. Right in front of you. I can check information straight away so it creates an instantaneous-type attitude where players say they are not getting what they want right now, so I am obviously not going to get it so I will move on.
“That is frustrating because the opportunity is there if you want to work hard for it and have the motivation. I don’t think it is a sense of entitlement, it is just players feeling that it is never going to happen because it didn’t happen instantly. A lot of the players are good enough.”
The best conclusion to reach is that New Zealand is doing okay in the retention battle. It is mostly winning – mostly keeping all the players it deems a priority, but not always.
“We’re very fortunate to have a talented pool of people but the downside is that everyone wants to come in and buy them,” Hansen said at the recent Halberg Awards.
“It’s the old adage, we want to develop one but we have to develop four – one for us and one for each of
those other environments. It hasn’t got to the point where it’s disastrous – the contracting people are doing a magnificent job and the rugby union are supporting us magnificently, and there’s [still] a massive desire to keep pulling on the black jersey. While that’s there, we’ll keep coming out on top on the talent side.”
As Hansen says, the key personnel continue to give their best years to the All Blacks but an increasing number of good players – men who have undoubted value – are leaving earlier in their respective careers.
Worryingly, though, is that the pressure being exerted by offshore predators has reached unprecedented levels and an already supremely tough battle is only going to get harder.
In the early days of professionalism, the offshore market was only after older, established All Blacks. Or really that should be older, established former All Blacks.
Typically the players who headed offshore were long-serving stalwarts who were no longer wanted by the national team and as a result, because of the way contracts were set up, suffered a sharp and sudden drop in income.
The UK market in particular couldn’t get enough of New Zealanders who were past their best but had a profile.
Inevitably, though, the trends have changed and offshore clubs have worked out that big name has-beens aren’t really worth the money. So now most big European clubs are after younger All Blacks and they have learned that men on the fringe are more willing to give that up than they previously were.
Sopoaga, as an example, could see that he was unlikely to ever usurp Beauden Barrett as the starting No 10 and that his future would be restricted to caps off the bench and the occasional start.
That would still be a special and valid role, but the danger existed that he could be passed ahead of the World Cup by the rising forces of Damian McKenzie and Richie Mo’unga.
The other problem is that as a fringe All Black, Sopoaga could probably earn between $300,000 and $450,000 a year. Good money indeed, but dwarfed by the $1m he will earn in England.
It was the same with Luatua who was in a scrap with Liam Squire, Vaea Fifita and Akira Ioane for a loose forward role. He couldn’t be sure if he would ever win that so, again, when Bristol put a $1m offer on the table, he took it.
“The change that we have noticed really quite recently – in the last few months – is that they [offshore clubs] are targeting younger players,” says NZR chief executive Steve Tew.
“Our younger players at the same time have become older players in a playing sense. What I mean by that is that if you look at someone such as Lima Sopoaga as an example, he’s a relatively young man but he’s had a long rugby career so far having been involved in Super Rugby for a long time.
“So you have to take that into account. The numbers [salaries] have jumped incrementally and we are not entirely sure why. It could be because there is change afoot in France and they are trying to get ahead of it. The five-year residency eligibility rule might have made a difference because you have to get people into the country younger.
“But it could be that they just have more money than sense and they keep wanting to spend it.”
NZR, of course, doesn’t have the luxury of spending as it pleases. Its coffers are not
THE CHANGE THAT WE HAVE NOTICED REALLY QUITE RECENTLY – IN THE LAST FEW MONTHS – IS THAT THEY [OFFSHORE CLUBS] ARE TARGETING YOUNGER PLAYERS.’ STEVE TEW
IT WAS IMPORTANT FOR US TO MAKE SURE THAT BEAUDEN BARRETT, SAM WHITELOCK AND SAM CANE AND ALSO THE LIKES OF COLESY [DANE COLES] AND READO [KIERAN READ] MADE A COMMITMENT FOR 2019.’ STEVE TEW
bottomless the way they seem to be in France and England.
Tew has to be fiscally responsible and, on a straight money basis, New Zealand can’t effectively compete despite the game being in the midst of a boom economic period.
In the last financial year NZR enjoyed record revenue of $257m and a record profit of $33 million. More than $40m of that revenue came from the Lions tour, though, and has to be spread across a number of years.
NZR has also put into trust $20m of that income so it can be used in future to retain players – knowing that the overseas threat will be even greater in World Cup year.
It is a significant war chest but it doesn’t go as far as some may think. By the time NZR has invested in its highest priority players – world class, first choice All Blacks such as Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith, Ben Smith and Kieran Read – there isn’t a huge amount of cash left.
Tew says: “It was important for us to make sure that Beauden Barrett, Sam Whitelock and Sam Cane and also the likes of Colesy [Dane Coles] and Reado [Kieran Read] made a commitment for 2019. One issue we are conscious of is that we had a Lions tour halfway towards the World Cup and that was quite a big carrot.
“We don’t have that in the cycle 20192023 so that will be a challenge for us. We are still working hard to make an environment that people want to stay and be part of.”
With less than 18 months until the World Cup, the All Blacks are in reasonable shape as far as contracts go. They have almost every player they want locked in until 2019.
But it is not everyone and there is one young player who emerged so impressively last year that he is now probably among the highest valued in the world.
This is Rieko Ioane, who comes off contract this year and is now vital to the All Blacks’ World Cup hopes. He is the man above all others whom NZR must keep.
For the first three months of this year, NZR was also chasing the signature of another young star – Damian McKenzie. Like Ioane, he was coming off contract this year.
McKenzie, given his utility ability and endless capacity to excite, would have been snapped up in an instant by any major European club. They would have broken the bank to have a 22-year-old goal-kicking first-five who can play fullback and wing.
But he’s a player the All Blacks need for the long haul, as they can see that in time, his game should mature and McKenzie could become an irresistible mix of magic and authority.
NZR made sure they put a solid option in front of McKenzie and in mid-March he signed.
It’s Ioane, though, who is the man of the moment. He made his test debut at just 19 in 2016 and then last year he went to a whole new level.
He is the quickest player in the country and at 1.94m and 106kg is the same size as Sonny Bill Williams.
And he can play. Ioane has it all and he forced his way into the All Blacks starting XV last year on form.
For that first test against the Lions everyone was predicting Julian Savea to be in the No 11 shirt. The selectors pulled what would constitute a major surprise by opting for Ioane.
It was a huge game and the question was whether, at 20 and with just two caps, he had the mental fortitude to handle the occasion. Yes said Hansen and Ioane repaid that faith by scoring two tries and going on to bag eight more throughout the season.
He did more than score tries, though: each game there would be a burst or a break that turned things for the All Blacks.
His pace and awareness created opportunities for those around him and, while he didn’t score against Scotland in Edinburgh, he kept the All Blacks in the game seemingly on his own.
By the end of the season it was scary how good he had become. He scored two tries against Wales in the final game that were
HE’S GOT SOMETHING A LOT OF OTHER PEOPLE DON’T HAVE, NAMELY MYSELF, AND THAT’S PACE. EVERY TIME HE GETS THE BALL YOU THINK “WOW, WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN?” HE ONLY NEEDS HALF A YARD BECAUSE HE IS SO QUICK AND HE’S STRONG WITH IT.’ STEVE HANSEN
sublime. And it was a game he wasn’t initially going to play having damaged his shoulder the week before.
The initial prognosis was that he would be out for weeks, but by the Wednesday he had made a miraculous recovery and by Thursday he was able to train.
“Thank goodness his shoulder came right that’s all I can say,” Hansen exclaimed after the 33-18 victory. “He’s phenomenal. If we can keep his feet on the floor he could go anywhere that kid.
“He’s got something a lot of other people don’t have, namely myself, and that’s pace. Every time he gets the ball you think ‘wow, what’s going to happen?’ He only needs half a yard because he is so quick and he’s strong with it.”
Ioane has just turned 21 and he would have to be considered the most exciting player on the planet. He is the best finisher and the most deadly runner.
He’s also a strong defender, good in the air, and in time will probably move into the midfield where he has played most of his rugby.
He’s an amazing athlete, a mellow and engaging character with good values and will be a critical part of the All Blacks at the 2019 World Cup and also 2023 if he can be secured for that long
Tying him to a long-term contract is now one of the highest priorities facing NZR. And to do that, they are going to have to move into new territory and offer one of their youngest players an enormous sum of money.
Historically players have had to serve their All Blacks’ apprenticeship as it were – get a few years of selection under their belt, win 40-plus caps and then see their salary climb. Seniority has paid well in the past but Tew says that will need to change.
“They are at risk,” he says of Ioane and McKenzie. “We are paying guys more at an early age because they tend to develop quicker.”
Ioane, then, can name his price. If NZR want him they will need to show it with an offer that recognises his value in a global context as Ioane could quite feasibly attract the most outrageous offshore offer ever seen.
Former All Black Piutau is believed to be the highest paid player in the world after Bristol offered him a reported $2m a season.
With English clubs able to offer what they like for marquee players and France not restricted at all, who knows what could be tabled for Ioane... $2.5m a year? $3m a year?... enough certainly for NZR to know that while they can’t match that, they will have to put Ioane up there with New Zealand’s top earners on about $1m a season.
The longest contracts they currently offer are for four years but with Ioane having only just turned 21, there is a desire to lock him for five – through to 2023 so there is no renegotiation between now and the World Cup in France.
NZR made the same offer to McKenzie – they offered him a five-year deal but he only signed for three.
To get that kind of lengthy commitment, NZR might have to up the money and it could be that Ioane, literally, becomes the $6 million man.
The lure of test rugby and the opportunity to play on the biggest stage is the hidden value in the NZR offer and it is one only they can make.
They can only hope such a package is enough not just because of Ioane’s importance to the All Blacks in the next 18 months, but because it could send out a disastrous message that all of New Zealand’s best players can be bought if the money is right.
Steven Luatua was playing like a genuine All Black when he chose to join Bristol. HARD TO SWALLOW
[ABOVE] LOCKED IN Sam Cane was deemed a high priority to be kept in New Zealand and still will be when his current contract expires. [LEFT] BUMS ON SEATS Damian McKenzie is a crowd favourite and another young player who is vital to the future of the...
MUST HAVE Rieko Ioane simply must be persuaded to commit his future to New Zealand. BIG LOSS Lima Sopoaga will be missed having spent the last two seasons with the All Blacks.