Sunday 15:00, September 20th, 2023 Abbaye Sainte-Marie de Fontfroide
All Black great Jeff Wilson recently offered up an article in which he encouraged young rugby players to sacrifice early education for their sporting careers.
His thrust was that a job as a professional rugby player is a fleeting and fragile one. A player on top of the world on Sunday can find themselves completely out of the game by Monday, so it makes sense to maximise your potential while you can and then focus on the rest later.
Wilson, while promoting this position as fair in a professional environment, also bemoaned the fact that this was happening at the expense of the All Blacks. His example being the case of Bundee Aki.
Aki has recently signed for Irish club Connacht with the intent of waiting out the three-year residency period and then playing for Ireland.
“It’s a long commitment. I put a lot of thought into it, looking at my options in terms of international rugby,” he said.
“Obviously the All Blacks have got their midfielders and with Sonny [Bill Williams] coming back, it’s not a bad thing for me to go. Hopefully, if I do the hard yards over there, good things will come.”
If Aki made the Irish team he might play along-side former Northland stalwart Jared Payne, who is being lined up as a replacement for Brian O’Driscoll.
And these two are far from the only product of the New Zealand rugby system that have been targeted by foreign clubs and countries recently.
After discovering a Welsh lineage link, 22-year-old Gareth Anscombe has been targeted by the Welsh rugby union to cover holes in their back line for the World Cup next year. Jason Woodward, Toby Smith and Jarrad Hayward have recently expressed their interest in changing allegiances to Australia, where they now play. At only 26, Andre Taylor will take up a Japanese contract next year.
The exodus of second tier players will only increase with the recently announced French broadcasting deal.
Wilson cited the complaints of Steve Hansen to this phenomena, but never offered any kind of solution.
Perhaps that solution is the return of the Junior All Blacks, a team that last ran out on the field at the beginning of the global financial slump in 2009 but hasn’t been seen since.
Interestingly, one name that I didn’t mention before was that of Ihaia West. The young Hawkes Bay prodigy was offered a similar kind of progression path as these other players in Australia and said no. Was this because he is super loyal to New Zealand? Or was it because he had already played for the New Zealand Maori team and could see a progression through the ranks?
Teams like the Maori All Blacks are viewed as stepping stones to the international stage. They provide greater pay scales for first class players and the ability to get exposure in a competitive market.
However, Aki, Anscombe and Woodward would not be able to play for the Maoris. Long gone are the days where just knowing how to say hello in Maori would qualify you for the team. There is real mana, history and culture associated with the team now. You have to be a Maori to play for the Maoris.
Now, I’m not saying to get rid of that team. I’m saying that with the New Zealand rugby union making a profit of $2.9 million last year and New Zealand teams (All Blacks, sevens, Maoris, under-20s) making the bulk of that money, doesn’t it make sense to bring back another international quality team under that brand?
Not only would it provide more international marketing opportunities for the NZRFU, but it would also provide a valuable pathway for second tier players who could not do so through the Maori team.
Without going into the complex heritage lines of many players in New Zealand, you could easily name a whole team of fringe players who don’t have a pathway to international rugby.
Another reason the time is right for this team to be re-introduced is the surrounding rugby landscape.
The ARU have recently complained that the only way they make money is through internationals. A Wallaby/All Black “B” Bledisloe series could hold some interest and not cost a whole lot. The Pacific Island teams are also still without high quality opposition or a high quality competition.
My vote would actually be to include a Sydney/Auckland-based Samoan team in the Rugby Championship. Since that doesn’t look like happening, perhaps the Junior All Blacks could be reintroduced to the Pacific Nations Cup.
Either way, the erosion of New Zealand rugby at the second tier level is a real tangible problem for the NZRFU. Perhaps, the reintroduction of the Junior All Blacks could go some way to shoring up the cracks and giving fringe players an opportunity to envision their way to the top.