Rules and code of ethics far too blurred
Something has clearly gone wrong when professional club rugby, where jobs are constantly on the line and the system is geared on the perform-oryou’re-out philosophy, is the purest form of the game.
Super Rugby is cold and brutal. Players are bought and sold. Coaches are hired and fired, and yet at the moment, the transparency of its culture and clarity of boundaries make it the most trustworthy and least cynical component of the rugby landscape.
It shouldn’t be like this. Schools rugby should be the purest form of the game where the desire to win is intense but managed within an ethical code.
It has always been the place where both the letter and spirit of the law matter and schools haven’t previously encouraged players to look for ways to push the rules to the limit.
What we have seen in the past few years is a professionalisation of schoolboy rugby in Auckland but without the transparent rules and legal contractual constraints that hold Super Rugby together.
So it has become a horrible mess where some schools have been strong enough to entirely reject all forms of recruitment, others have changed their thinking to some extent and one has decided anything goes and is buying success at almost any cost.
The purity of it has been contaminated and no one is dumb enough to stand on the sidelines of a schoolboys game these days and believe they are seeing a fair contest.
And it’s much the same at the other end of the spectrum where international rugby has become impure and cynical and just as misguided on the notion of recruitment.
It’s a preposterous notion that international rugby teams can have recruitment strategies, and yet they do. Much like schools, they no longer feel they should be restricted to selecting only from their catchment.
The situation in the international game is murkier and more complex than in schools rugby and more emotive, which is why the nub of one particularly damaging and contentious issue continually gets missed.
Throughout November, there was a near xenophobic focus on where players were born, as if that in itself proved the flawed ethics of certain nations.
It didn’t at all. We live in a mobile world where people have greater freedom to move for work or education.
Where the moral compass has gone off course is in the specific business of targeting what are called project players and offering them club contracts that are financially topped up by the national union.
Former Chiefs player Bundee Aki is in Ireland on one of these contracts. He was identified in 2014 as a player of interest by the Irish national selectors who forecast that once he qualified under the three-year residency ruling, he’d be exactly the sort of player they would need in their midfield.
Luring Aki, an already welldeveloped professional player in his early 20s, with a major financial incentive and strong hint of a test jersey being on offer, is precisely the sort of strategy that many pundits feel corrodes the credibility of test football.
That is targeted recruitment of another country’s players and is essentially a case of buying someone’s nationality.
When this point was made when the All Blacks were in Ireland last month, there was a predictable deluge of accusations that New Zealand has been poaching Pacific Island players for decades and therefore had no right to any higher moral ground.
But surely everyone can see the difference between the Tuungafasi family emigrating to New Zealand from Tonga in search of what they hoped would be greater economic and educational opportunities when Ofa was an infant and the Irish Rugby Union putting a massive contract in front of a professional rugby player who was already showing signs of being good enough to play test football?
There is surely also an acceptance that Tamaki College offering Vaea Fifita a scholarship when he was 16 is not the All Blacks raiding the Islands for players.
The All Blacks have benefited from decisions schools across New Zealand have made in regard to giving places to boys living in the Islands, but again, this isn’t New Zealand Rugby conducting an orchestrated recruitment plan.
Such a stance poisons test rugby as much as the nationwide scholarship regime of St Kentigern College has damaged the perception of fairness in schoolboy rugby.
So here we are now with a broken Super Rugby competition that as much as it is hard to love, does at least have the ability to be fair in the sense that every team is governed by the same rules and code of ethics.