The Roar
The Roar


Australia and South Africa need New Zealand's draft system

The Crusaders are flying high. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)
Roar Guru
4th April, 2016
2556 Reads

One of the curiosities of sports organisations is the inability to see how a successful model works, and then reproduce its best features.

Nowhere is this truer than the domestic rugby model in New Zealand, which has cultivated the most successful team in the professional era.

John O’Neill spelled out the virtues of mirroring the opportunities afforded by multiple teams; the playing numbers of New Zealand and Australia were similar (and in South Africa are greater), but the difference at that stage was the numbers of teams available to realise those numbers: “You have to create the capacity and the playing numbers will come through,” the former ARU chief said in 2012.

This is certainly critical to increasing the number of elite players who appear through such opportunities, but it neglects a fundamental element of the New Zealand system. It is not simply the number of teams in play, but the distribution of talent across the teams that differentiates the models and their effectiveness.

At present, South Africa and Australia are hamstrung by the issue of player hoarding. Two or three franchises are allowed to hog the vast majority of the talent in the country, leaving the other teams quite weak. A full draft system would spread the players around more evenly, but weaken the top teams and threaten their ability to compete and win.

This is where the subtle brilliance of New Zealand’s special kind of draft becomes evident. It is not a full draft. Indeed, it is quite remarkable how writers on the subject seem unable to distinguish between a full NFL or NBA-style draft, which produces teams of equal strength, and New Zealand’s much more limited draft, which allows the strong teams to remain strong but spreads the unused extras to the other teams, improving them in the process.

In fact, most rugby writers tend to respond to the idea of the New Zealand draft as a full draft, and all arguments against it are based on that misunderstanding.

New Zealand’s draft is partial, not whole. Each team is allowed to ‘protect’ 24 players in each new phase while the rest are spread evenly around the other teams. This means strong teams get to keep the cream they produce, while the excess is passed to those that need it.


That excess is critical. A few players on the very edge of the squad make little to no difference to strong franchises, but can make significant improvements to turn weaker teams into competitive ones.

The key idea here is that, when players are stockpiled en masse in strong franchises, they are simply not used at all and often never even penetrate the squad, so their loss does not affect the strong team they leave.

Whole legions of players fester in academies or unplayed on the very edge of the squads. Given the chance, they might lead other teams to victory. Their departure would simply have no effect on a Waratahs or Stormers, a point that only New Zealand seem to have understood.

The partial draft gifts the strong sides the cream of their local produce, and even in a partial draft far more of it than they can use.

The issue is summed up in the case of Nemani Nadolo, who spent a complete season at the fringe of the Waratahs squad, where Drew Mitchell and Lachie Turner held the starting wing positions, and had to leave the country to play a good level of rugby.

And so one of the best wingers in the world was lost to Australian rugby.

With New Zealand’s partial draft, Nadolo would have been playing at the Western Force, making the difference between narrow loses and narrow victories, and a few other similar players would have made it a competitive team.


The NRC in itself will create or develop another team or two’s worth of high-quality players over the next decade, as would the Currie Cup if it had more teams. Yet this is no good if the talent produced is simply hoarded by the Waratahs or Brumbies in 50-man extended squads.

Avoiding this is precisely why New Zealand chose the partial draft in the first place.

There are other problems associated with weak teams like the Kings and Force, notably the refusal to hire better quality Australian and South African coaches working in Europe in favour of local insiders. That is the other part of the solution to the weak teams – appoint quality coaches from Europe, such as Brian Smith or Steve Meehan.

Such coaching appointments would help, but the weak teams would at least be competitive if they had greater access to better players. This is quite achievable through the partial draft.

It is also obvious. In Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Joseph K is told by a priest, exasperated at his inability to understand the obviousness of his predicament, “Can’t you see what’s right in front of you?”

New Zealand are the dominant team in the world. They use a partial draft. Surely Australia and South Africa can realise it’s a system worth adopting.