Returning ABs face huge re-selection odds

LIAM NAPIER
Last updated 05:00 10/03/2013
Steve Hansen
FAIRFAX NZ
STEVE HANSEN: Faces some tough calls.

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Coming home is not easy. Not if your All Blacks dream is alive.

Discovering that flame is about to be extinguished is a tough pill to swallow.

Many players who leave these shores for financial benefit make noises about coming back to chase the coveted black jersey.

Realistically, though, most are kidding themselves. In all likelihood, when you walk away, your All Blacks career is finished.

"The biggest challenge for our guys when they go overseas is to fit back into the intensity and style of rugby that's played here," All Blacks coach Steve Hansen says.

"There hasn't been too many that have returned successfully.

"It's hard mentally for anybody. You step out of something for a wee while and you have to adjust. If you can't, then you are left behind."

Any stint of significance - one year or longer - away from New Zealand's premier pathway devalues a player's ability, and test prospects.

Tamati Ellison, Leon MacDonald, Troy Flavell and, in a unique context, Brad Thorn, are the only players to break the mould and reclaim their place in the All Blacks with any conviction.

Some may argue that, of that bunch, Thorn is the only one to truly establish himself. Three of those players went to Japan, where the fast-paced style, comparatively short season, and minimal physical demands can help maintain form and preserve longevity.

After returning, Ellison showed maturity and guile with the Highlanders to earn promotion last year; MacDonald reclaimed his place in 2005, and Flavell played seven further tests.

Thorn is one out-of-the-box. After a second spell with the Brisbane Broncos in the NRL, he etched a memorable legacy in the black jersey.

Only three others achieved the feat. Manawatu flanker Kevin Schuler came back from Japan to play two tests in the 1995 World Cup.

And, after the New Zealand Rugby Union bent the rules, Luke McAlister's recall was a disaster. He then walked out on North Harbour for the French riches. Daniel Braid also made a short-lived All Blacks comeback after his breakout season with the Queensland Reds, but he never left Australasia.

That is where the brief list of returning All Blacks ends. It's hardly a seven-pronged roll of honour.

Other than the McAlister debacle, no other player has regained their spot in the national team after playing for a prolonged period in Europe.

Chris Jack and Rudi Wulf tried, but eventually realised they had been overtaken. That's no surprise. European rugby requires different skills. Dour winter weather produces a forward-orientated, kick-heavy game. Backs suffer with a lack of opportunities.

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Forwards lose their flair; the ability to off-load, link and roam to the same capacity. And while the Top 14 in France is more attacking-minded, it lacks the speed and intensity of Super Rugby.

Any wonder recruits lose their instinctive zip, with tactics far removed from classic Kiwi running rugby.

"It's a rare occasion when they do come back a better player," Blues chief executive Andy Dalton agreed. "It would seem the competition in New Zealand, and particularly Super Rugby, is at a different level to anything in the northern hemisphere and Japan. Players can very quickly fall behind in terms of the speed of the game."

It's a warning worth heeding in the modern climate where players such as Chiefs co-captain Craig Clarke, livewire wing Lelia Masaga, in-form Blues centre Rene Ranger, and the invaluable Richard Kahui prepare to take up overseas contacts well before their used-by dates.

"There's other people putting their hand up so that becomes a challenge too," Hansen said.

The last statement is relevant for 2011 player-of-the-year Jerome Kaino, who is pondering a return next year.

"He's indicated he wanted to come back," Hansen added. "We talked very briefly about that. I know he's got unfinished business with the All Blacks, but it's a matter of whether he can come back in and play at that level."

While Kaino has Japan in his favour, Liam Messam, Brad Shields and Steven Luatua may have something to say about his All Blacks' aspirations.

Reaching the pinnacle is not the goal of every returning player. Tony Brown, Tim Bateman, Marty Holah and Kees Meeuws have added immensely to the New Zealand game after their overseas ventures.

But for those considering a second bite at the All Blacks cherry the message is clear: happy homecomings aren't easy.

- Sunday Star Times

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