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

NZ Rugby World - - Contents - Gre­gor Paul with the story.


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



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



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


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.

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