What to do with exodus of players?
Last week my colleague Gavin Rich bemoaned the exodus of players out of South Africa for the riches of Japan and Europe, and asked whether there was any solution.
It is a massive issue here in New Zealand too, an inevitability of rugby going professional. New Zealanders, more than anything else, wanted rugby to go pro to stop our elite players going off to rugby league, especially after the defection of players like Frano Botica, John Gallagher and Craig Innes to league was seen as a major factor in the failure to win the 1991 World Cup.
The irony is we are now losing far more players to rugby clubs overseas than we ever lost to league.
The 2012 New Zealand Rugby Almanack listed over 300 New Zealanders playing professionally overseas. Not all are elite players…some would barely have made it into the pro ranks in New Zealand and are using their rugby ability to pay the bills while they enjoy some time overseas. Others are well past their peak, some are All Blacks no longer required by the national team, and there are plenty who realised they were never going to be All Blacks and opted to take the bigger money overseas, and you can’t blame them.
In a lot of cases it suits the NZRU to let these guys go. Someone like Joe Rokocoko gave great service to New Zealand but was never going to play test rugby again. He went with the nation's blessing, earns his retirement money in France and it freed up some cash for the NZRU to spend on keeping a young player of All Black potential in the country.
New Zealand is a small country with a small economy, and while the NZRU has about the equivalent of about R350 million in the bank, that would soon disappear if they got into a bidding war every time a good player was attracted by a big-money offer from Japan, France or the UK.
So instead of waving money at the players they’ve had to wave the All Black jersey. The NZRU has steadfastly refused to consider selecting overseas based players for the All Blacks, a stance they say will not change.
They do this for four reasons. One, as I’ve said, is to avoid going bankrupt. Two, to reward loyalty. Three, because if they allowed players from overseas to play for the All Blacks there’d be a mad rush for the departure gates at Auckland Airport, and that leads to Four, to protect the integrity of their competitions.
Sponsors pay big money to be associated with Super Rugby and ITM Cup and they would not be repaying those sponsors, and the fans who pay at the turnstiles and through TV subs, if they allowed our best players to head off overseas and allowed them to swan back into the national team, when it suited them and their offshore paymasters.
I note that South Africa has a different attitude to selecting overseas players. I’m not saying Saru is wrong, but I firmly believe the NZRU stance works for us.
That All Black jersey still has a magnetic pull. Guys like Richie McCaw and Dan Carter value it enough to have turned down some massive offers, although they, and other elite players, have been allowed some flexibility in the form of short term “sabbaticals” in exchange for a long term commitment.
I also think the game “down under” is played at a different pace and intensity to that of the Northern Hemisphere, and it must be very hard to make that immediate adjustment from a club in France or Japan, to the Springboks for a big test match.
The NZRU’s unbending attitude hasn’t helped keep everyone they wanted. They copped flak for not doing more to keep Nick Evans and Carl Hayman here, but the critics have gone pretty quiet now that Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett have come through, and Hayman's career is on the wane. Our countries are blessed with a production line of rugby talent.
It does become a concern when young players head off, although it’s not necessarily the end of the world.
At least when they’re young they’ve got time on their side, time to go away and come back. Juandre Kruger's experience at Northampton might have even helped make him a better player, because he has been out and seen the world a bit, maybe become a more rounded person, and lived the day to day slog of rugby in a foreign environment, one that I’m sure made him appreciate the firm grounds and dry winters of his homeland!
Even spending time in the relatively low intensity of Japan rugby has helped freshen up some Kiwi players….Leon MacDonald got on top of some concussion issues and came back rejuvenated, and it didn’t seem to do Tamati Ellison any harm. There is hope that Jerome Kaino will still have some All Black rugby in him when he gets back from Japan in 18 months' time.
And there is another thing to consider.
Are these huge numbers of Kiwi and Saffa players helping or hindering the cause of the national teams of Japan, Ireland and England, for example?
Ireland have two excellent front line props in Cian Healey and Mike Ross, but their next best sits on the bench at Ulster while former All Black John Afoa starts most games. How much good is that doing him, and the Irish national team?
Imagine how frustrating it must be for a young lock in Cardiff having to slog it out in the reserve team while a veteran journeyman like Paul Tito starts for the premiers.
There is absolutely no evidence to suggest Japan has improved at international level when their club teams have been for years so dominated by foreigners, while England might one day wake up and find that their rugby team's fortunes are in danger of following that of their football team down the gurgler because they too have allowed their domestic competition to be dominated by imports.
I remain firm in the belief that every time a club in Europe signs a New Zealander or a South African, it slams the door shut on a young player in Europe and opens a door for a young player in New Zealand or South Africa.
Mind you, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of imports making their way into the aforementioned England side. I counted two New Zealanders, two South Africans and a Samoan on the recent tour….and that could become a worry.
It’s also a bit of an about face, and one that New Zealanders are certainly chuckling over, when the English media were for so long, so loud, and so often misleading in their criticism of New Zealand for “poaching” Pacific Islanders.
The PI influence in the All Blacks peaked at seven in the 2007 RWC squad (there were three at last year's RWC team and none currently). Almost all of those players had arrived in New Zealand as youngsters with their families. Those families came looking for work and a good education for their kids, not because two-year-old Joe Rokocoko was showing promise as a rugby player and had been offered a NZRU contract!
There has been a migration of Pacific Islanders to New Zealand over the past four decades. Some families have been here for two or three generations. Their kids grow up as New Zealanders but are encouraged to celebrate their Pacific heritage. When the time comes many opt to play for their country of origin, many obviously have wanted to play for New Zealand. They have a choice and no-one puts a gun to their head.
I’m sure it is the same with those families from Zimbabwe, Namibia and Zambia whose sons have played for South Africa.
But with England it’s different. I’ll concede that Manu Tuilagi has lived in England since he was in his mid-teens, and I am not sure of the circumstances of Mouritz Botha, but Dylan Hartley, Thomas Waldrom, and Brad Barritt of the current team, and Shontayne Hape and Riki Flutey of recent years all went to the UK for no other reason than to play professional sport and ended up in the England jersey.
It’s a big difference.