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New Zealand is a protectionist rugby state. With its streamlined pyramid tapering to All Black success at its pinnacle, the wastage of both manpower and intellectual property is minimal.
When Kiwi coaches go abroad, they tend to do it with a view to expanding their horizons and returning home as an improved version of themselves.
Even players who don’t look as if they might make the full All Black grade – like Hurricane Brad Shields currently – are not let go without a fight if it looks like they might help another nation challenge the motherland.
Shields is currently the subject of a wrangle between the RFU in England and the NZRFU on the other side of the world. Eddie Jones has been given permission to select Shields for the England tour of South Africa in June, and the player is keen, but the CEO of the New Zealand union, Steve Tew, has threatened to block the move on the grounds that the player is contracted to New Zealand until the end of the 2018 Super Rugby season.
Although there is not much doubt that World Rugby’s regulation nine (governing player release in international windows) will supply final say in the matter, the incident does serve as an important reminder of how keenly New Zealand protects its own assets.
It is the cohesion of its rugby culture which makes New Zealand the strongest rugby nation on the face of the earth. From school and age groups all the way up to Super Rugby, there is a universal acceptance that All Black selection is the ultimate goal, and the development of skills and individual careers is all bent towards that end.
But the national strength of New Zealand rugby is also its weakness internationally. Super Rugby is dying on its feet because nobody in Australia, South Africa or Argentina – except maybe the Lions – can compete with the top four Kiwi franchises.
Even though the Australian regions have been artificially insulated by the 2018 schedule from damaging early batterings, the last few rounds have shown that not much has changed from last season – the Rebels were routed 19-50 by the Hurricanes at home in Round 7, the Highlanders beat the Brumbies 43-17 in Round 9 and the Reds went down 12-36 to the Chiefs at the Suncorp last weekend.
New Zealand has already tried to slow the leakage of its top talent to clubs in England and France by establishing a bridge with the Harlequins club in southwest London. The strategic partnership announced at the beginning of March envisages an exchange scheme with coaches and players moving in both directions.
As Steve Tew commented at the time, “This will create significant opportunities for both sides, with players, coaches and staff able to learn from different environments with different people, challenges and cultures.”
Harlequins see it as an opportunity for up-and-coming players with international potential to develop their skill-sets and rugby knowledge:
“The system will benefit young players who are out of the academy, into the U20s, recognised as players with potential,” a Harlequins spokesman said.
“Kyle Sinckler [a British and Irish Lion in 2017], had this agreement happened a few years ago, would have been the type of player who fitted the bill.
“Equally this is a great opportunity for coaches to mentor other coaches, to learn about the differences between rugby in the northern and southern hemisphere.”
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Ironically, this is just the kind of exchange that Australia needs in order to improve its own Super Rugby teams.
The standout feature of the current rugby season is that emerging Wallabies are nowhere near as ready to play Test football as their counterparts from across the Tasman.
But in order for such a scheme to work, New Zealand would have to embrace the wider aspect of its own best interests, and accept that a strong Australia and a strong South Africa are essential to the health of Southern Hemisphere rugby as a whole. Protectionism is a one-eyed view.
Without a more competitive version of Super Rugby, the tier connecting Test level to national inter-provincial tournaments like the NPC, NRC and Currie Cup will slowly wither and die.
Why should Australian players go to school in New Zealand to learn their trade? Because they will experience the very best in coaching and skills development.
But, unlike Allan Alaalatoa’s brother, Michael, they have to go free in the knowledge that they can come back and play in and for Australia.
Evidence of the success of this transplant was available indirectly in the Reds-Chiefs game. The Chiefs’ side contained two starters, Canadian second row Tyler Ardron and tight-head prop Angus Ta’avao, who are re-treads from careers of previously modest success.
I remember watching Ardron playing for my local region in Wales, the Ospreys. Although clearly a talented athlete (and Ospreys Player of the Year in 2015), he never flourished fully in the back-row role he was required to play.
When he signed for the Chiefs in May 2017, it was with the aim of ‘playing the most exciting brand of rugby’ alongside his forwards coach as a Canadian international, Chiefs assistant Neil Barnes. Ardron was recast as a ball-playing second row, in a sub-unit with All Black monster Brodie Retallick, which is emerging as one of the best balanced in the tournament.
As Barnes put it, “He’s a very good athlete, he’s intelligent, learns quickly, and he can play the game. They would have moulded him [at Ospreys] so he’s a lot more direct but we’d like to see him given a little more width, so he can express himself like I know he can.”
Apart from satisfying his core functions as the Chiefs’ main lineout target (five clean wins) and restart collector (two wins, see at 0:08 in the reel below), Ardron made a potential try-assisting offload (called back for a forward pass) and scored himself on a pick play:
His great hands created opportunities for the men outside him throughout the game:
The most spectacular example of his running and ball-handling ability came in the side’s win over the Sunwolves:
Ardron has been liberated by a new vision of his abilities and the capacity to release it through advanced coaching techniques. The same could also be said of tight-head prop Ta’avao.
Ta’avao looked for all the world like a bust, and particularly a scrummaging bust, when he left the Waratahs back in 2017. But despite being rated probably only fourth in the depth chart at his position at the start of the season, he has emerged to fill the starting role more than adequately after injuries to Nepo Laulala, Atu Moli and Sefo Kautai.
The Reds have based their success this season firmly around the power of their scrum, and they must have been expecting to continue their domination against the Chiefs. In the event they got no change at all out of Ta’avao. The Chiefs’ second try (scored by Charlie Ngatai at 1:17 on the reel) occurred after the Reds had been squeezed off a feed near their own goal-line:
A third try was scored when a weak defensive wheel took all of the Reds’ forwards out of the subsequent play (at 1:57 on the reel).
After James Slipper went off injured, Ta’avao comfortably took care of his replacement, (and probably Queensland’s best pure scrumming loose-head) JP Smith, in the second period:
New Zealand’s protectionist rugby policies have made it the strongest, most coherent rugby nation in the world. But now that strength is beginning to turn into a weakness. More current midlife All Blacks are leaving for the English and French club scene than ever before, and Super Rugby is teetering on the brink.
It is time for bridges to be built and new relationships to be forged.
The NZRFU already has one beachhead in the shape of the Harlequins club, which gives them some potential to control the movements of players, and the contractual terms of those movements between the hemispheres.
It may also be necessary to build in the same kind of exchange schemes with Australian (and maybe South African) franchises in Super Rugby.
Australia currently lacks the coaching infrastructure and talent to bring players across from age-group to regional and international level productively.
Young Australian players will learn more lessons, and they will learn them more quickly in New Zealand. That will in turn help keep Australia competitive at professional level, and maintain the real worth of a tournament between the provincial and Test tiers.
It is no accident that the likes of Tyler Ardron and Angus Ta’avao suddenly appear to be far better players than they were in Wales and Australia now that they are in New Zealand.
They are thriving in the most vigorous rugby culture on Earth – and it is time for that culture to reach out beyond its own needs.