2011 could see Northern Hemisphere players heading south of the equator in large numbers following a new agreement reached by NZRU with their Super 15 franchises.
Next year New Zealand will have to find 20 new professional players as Super 15 squads expand from 28 to a minimum of 30 and maximum of 32. Every coach will want 32 – but from where will they come?
In reports in the NZ Herald, it’s said that agreement has been reached to begin introducing foreign players to generate commercial interest and greater diversity. It will also give a chance for Argentine players to move up several steps to get them ready for the much higher-level of rugby in the south prior to them joining the Four Nations in 2012.
It’s happened already with players such as Juan Martin Hernandez, Gregor Townsend and Freddie Michalak visiting SA teams in recent years.
The ARU amended their rules so each Super 14 team can hire international stars – one marquee and one junior. And the Rebels have been actively recruiting north of the hemisphere border.
New Zealand has been lagging because of fears that such a policy would deny a local player a chance to develop and shine. There have been one or two who’ve got under the door, however, under the new system, the NZRU will not block overseas recruitment unless the pay demands are too high. The NZRU could also say no if too many players are being recruited in the same position.
The New Zealand Players Association has greeted the decision with something approaching guarded enthusiasm, though they may feel like turkeys welcoming the arrival of Thanksgiving.
As a spokesman said: “It could generate a bit of interest and a bit of cross-fertilisation – with South Africans and Australians and others coming here. The most important thing, though, is that we don’t end up with five first-fives here, blocking pathways. The money has to be right, too. We can’t have offshore players coming at any price, as the payments are coming out of the player pool.”
Franchises will be able to offer overseas recruits a max of NZ$180,000 a season. Reports that one J Wilkinson is earning €408,000 (NZ$760,000) a season (after tax) puts that contribution into perspective. Any more will have to come from the NZRU and/or a third party.
Interestingly, players from the Pacific Islands will not count as overseas recruits as is the case now.
While the New Zealand market will be open to players from all countries, the Herald thinks it’s likely South African and Australian players will be of most interest to them, as they will have shown they can handle the pace and intensity of Super Rugby. And possibly some from Argentina.
Any players contemplating a move will have to consider the impact it will have on their test chances. For some NH players nearing the end of their test career, this may appeal to try out something different if they’ve shored up their bank balance sufficiently. For others, it may be a chance to kick-start a flagging career.
And for some of the younger ones, it’s a tempting offer to try out something new. Jamie Heaslip, the Leinster and Ireland No. 8 probably had his ear bent previously by Rocky Elsom when he was recently quoted as saying he’d like to try rugby in the S14. The attraction of a different climate, culture and a much shorter playing season than the NH were some of the reasons he stated.
However, for the market to work, players must be able to sustain test careers.
Nevertheless, with the Rebels starting up and New Zealand squads expanding, there are places for 50 more players next season.
Who’d you like to see shifting within SANZAR or heading south to try their hand?