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The good and bad in Razor's All Blacks eligibility tease

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Roar Rookie
3rd May, 2023
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2113 Reads

A family went on holiday last summer and a neighbour was tasked with looking after their grandma and cat. A few days later, the neighbour called the family.

“Sorry Mandy, I hate to have to tell you this, but your cat’s died.” “What? You shouldn’t have told me like that!”

“Why? What should I have said?” “You should have broken it gradually. Maybe started today with ‘your cat’s stuck up a tree’ to get me used to the idea. Then the next day ‘the fire brigade has arrived’ and so on.”
Two days later, the neighbour called Mandy again. “Your grandma’s stuck up a tree.”

RAZOR’S EDGE

Was Scott Robertson’s statement last week about considering an unprecedented move to select overseas based players for the All Blacks a “grandma’s stuck up a tree” communication? Getting the New Zealand administrators, players and public used to the idea and testing the waters to see their reaction.

Remember that this is the All Blacks’ first head coach brought up as a player in the professional era. Someone who left for France at the age of 29, and might have liked to represent his country while earning big Euros. He understands better than most what makes a modern All Black tick.

There’s been a lot of debate since Razor’s remark but how methodically have we considered the consequences? We need to do so, because a change like this will have a fundamental effect on New Zealand rugby. Was Ian Foster right to say that it would be a disaster?

In this article we will start by looking at how utterly crucial the performance of the All Blacks is, and will continue to be, to the game in this country. We will then look at the benefits to performance of only selecting home based players and the potential benefits of also selecting overseas based players.

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WHERE IS OUR COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE?

New Zealand is a nation of five million people. Britain and France have about thirteen times more than that, Japan about 27. This means that New Zealand can’t hope to compete financially with the internal income of those nations. New Zealand needs big international revenue streams to compete.

Furthermore, there is not a single club league in the world which earns a significant proportion of its income overseas. However much money is spent – and the three aforementioned leagues have lost hundreds of millions of dollars for their owners despite their huge internal markets – the interest in them is almost exclusively domestic. Nobody else really cares. With New Zealand’s internal market so small, Super Rugby therefore has very limited potential for growth.

(One caveat to that is if a major Asian nation such as Japan were willing to be part of Super Rugby, and distribute substantial funds to New Zealand. This is a very remote hope at this stage. Some income from a Champions League perhaps, but that is unlikely to be game changing.)

On the other hand, the All Blacks are the number one rugby brand in the world. We already earn $73m a year from the four main All Black sponsorships alone (Altrad $50m, Adidas $10m, INEOS £8m, Tissot $5m.) Companies want to be associated with the elite international brand.

The All Blacks have been found to have 60 million fans worldwide. It’s a horrible phrase, but monetising those fans is where a big financial upside lies.

New Zealand’s competitive advantage is in the All Black brand and this is where the big potential growth is. New Zealand cannot remain competitive worldwide just by growing Super Rugby because the ceiling is too low. Extra income from Super Rugby is of course welcome but it is an incredibly incompetent company that risks its main, highly profitable worldwide brand with huge growth potential, to try to grow a minor domestic one with very limited potential growth.

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Barbarians joint head coach Scott Robertson before the Killik Cup match between Barbarians and All Blacks XV at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London, England. (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

(Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Growth in Super Rugby is only worthwhile if it does not jeopardise the core All Black brand.

Having established that All Black performance is so important to our national game, we can now consider some of the benefits of keeping our best players onshore.

PEAKING FOR THE BIG TESTS

It’s a criticism that’s been levelled so often at 1970s & 80s county cricket (e.g. by Imran Khan,) the English First Division (before the number of teams was reduced) the French Top 14 and the English Premiership. Too many games and too long a season means that a player doesn’t have the energy to peak high at international level. It’s no coincidence that France and England, despite their gigantic financial and playing resources, have won just one Rugby World Cup between them. There are now better agreements between union and clubs regarding their own international players, but this doesn’t apply to foreign internationals.

Ireland has done a fantastic job of resting its Test players in the URC, but they would have no reason to rest ours.

This principle of not overworking players is well known in the sports science community. High workload increases the risk of injury and fatigue negatively impacts on performance. The opportunity to taper your workload is also necessary to play at your very best when it really matters.

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The lesson is clear. If the All Blacks are to be able to maxismise their peak for the big tests and not be injured for them they cannot afford to have too high a workload, especially in the period leading up to chocolate time.

PLAYER AVAILABILITY
Then you have the availability question. Japanese players not being able to play for the Wallabies in November. Tatafu Polota-Nau having to make 24 hour round trips on Rugby Championship rest weeks to play for Leicester, because English league rules FORCE clubs to select their non English Test players those weeks. Finn Russell injured playing for Racing on a Six Nations rest week. Is this what we want for our top All Blacks?

As for being available for mid season camps, forget it.

If ever New Zealand were to allow All Blacks to play for Australian teams, a perpetual agreement on workload and availability would have to be a prerequisite.

PLAYER DEVELOPMENT
People have spoken about letting All Blacks play permanently in Japan but the quality of rugby is nowhere near New Zealand standards. Seriously, how long did it take Brodie Retallick to get back to his best after a couple of years in Japan? Fair enough to let a player earn some money and recharge batteries on a sabbatical but it can’t be a permanent solution.

Others have spoken of selecting those playing in Australia. The level of coaching there simply isn’t good enough and improving this would have to be another prerequisite for free player movement.

Some European clubs could be better, but see under “player welfare” and “player availability” above. Short term yes, permanent no.

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Top players playing in New Zealand guarantees good development for the player. It also contributes to the development of younger professionals and gives the chance to let Kiwi kids to see the best players play, in the flesh, week in and week out. Do we really want to give that away?

UPSIDES TO SELECTING FROM OVERSEAS
Finally, how about the possible advantages of selecting from overseas? We’ve already discussed getting a broader rugby education in Europe, but that we would need to worry about player availability and welfare.

Improving Super Rugby as a competition by selecting from Australia is another possible argument and there are definite potential benefits if the conditions mentioned above are met. Once again though the potential growth is limited. Calls to try to compete with the highly established AFL and NRL, playing codes that between them dominate every state, are surely a great way to chuck away lots of good money. We need to be very careful with this one.

And as Hamish McLennan recently pointed out in his “code war” with Perter V’landys, international competition is the big carrot in rugby union.

LARGER PLAYER POOL
This leaves the main argument – being able to select more players by including those based overseas.

Australia tried this in a limited way, but once you step on that slippery slope there is only one direction – down. More players have left Australia at a younger age, the world ranking has declined, restrictions have continued to loosen and now there is talk of Eddie wanting open slather this year.

South Africa went kitchen sink and were rewarded with a World Cup. However they already had a lot of players overseas due to the low Rand so had a big pressing need. We will see in a minute whether this is the case in New Zealand.

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Of course, South Africa is already complaining about the player workload and travel. I’ll recycle my usual joke – when does a Springbok have an off season? When he’s injured.

FRENCH FAREWELLS
One of the main arguments for loosening the restrictions is that it’s the way the game is going. More All Blacks are leaving permanently this year than ever before they say.

Let’s look at some of the All Blacks under 30 who left the country after the last World Cup in France (2007.)
Karl Hayman (27) the world’s best tighthead
Chris Jack (29) the all Blacks’ senior lock
Jerry Collins (26) perhaps the greatest ever All Black blindside
Luke McAlister (24) the incumbent second five
Aaron Mauger (26) the back up second five, on the bench in the France quarter final.
(Also Greg Sommerville, Chris Masoe and Nick Evans left the following year).

Now let’s consider the number of current All Blacks under 30 who are leaving New Zealand permanently after the World Cup, with October ages in brackets.
Leicester Fainga’nuku (24)
Shannon Frizzell (29)
Richie Mo’unga (29)

So a wing who was dumped after two tests, a blindside who is unlikely to be our best at the following World Cup, and our best fly half at the moment (but maybe not when he’s 33 in 2027). That’s it. The exodus of top All Blacks is more a kayak than a Red Sea miracle. Compare that to the key players who left in 2007 and remember who won the next two World Cups.

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DON’T PANIC CAPTAIN MAINWARING!
With so much to lose and so little to gain, this is a time to (if you’ll permit me another British World War II catchphrase) keep calm and carry on. If the trickle ever becomes a Springbok level flood it might be a different matter, but there is no sign of that happening in the foreseeable future.

Until then, even talking about it makes it more likely to happen, making the idea a bit less taboo. Let’s not take our first step down that slippery slope.

Or get our grandmother stuck up a tree.

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