Wilson: Global rugby season must be sorted out

JEFF WILSON
Last updated 05:00 18/05/2014

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OPINION: The weakened England team soon to head south for the opening test against the All Blacks illustrates vividly why we have to sort out this global rugby season.

How is it that we in the south continue to get short-changed in June, while we manage to send our best teams north in November?

Moves are afoot to push the June international window to July and that would solve a lot of problems. But Steve Tew is not confident of getting it over the line, which means we could be stuck with this undesirable situation of teams coming to New Zealand below full strength.

It's significant too. The first test sets up a series for the visiting side, and if you entertain any hope of beating the All Blacks, you need to catch them unawares in the opener when they're invariably not at their sharpest.

England coming without players involved in their club final gives every opportunity to beat them comprehensively, and almost take the series away before it's barely got going.

Think about it. A 30-point hiding in the first test dents confidence, then you've got to reintroduce new players for the second test. Before you know it the All Blacks are up 2-0, the series is over and any chance of applying pressure is lost.

We're told England rugby can't find one week in their competition when their best players are all available for their country. That doesn't sound right.

It's not an ideal scenario for New Zealand rugby either building towards the World Cup in 2015. There are limited opportunities to prepare and every one is vital.

New Zealand rugby is doing its bit to grow the game globally. There's a balancing act between exposing players to too much rugby and meeting the financial requirement to keep the books in the black, and our players in this part of the world.

Last year we took the All Blacks to Japan to "promote" the game, with no expectation of a financial bonanza. This year it's America in November, and even though there are spinoffs for sponsors there are still pretty noble reasons behind the game.

We're certainly doing our part, even though critics will point to the continued failure to take the All Blacks to the islands. Remember, we do contract island players for Super Rugby, and are doing other things to help their development.

Until the June test window changes we are not going to have a meaningful mid-year series. That's short-changing the rugby fan. If you've bought tickets to the first test - and plenty have - you're entitled to feel disappointed.

Given all of this, does it set up the first test as an opportunity for Steve Hansen to make some subtle adjustments? It will be interesting to see whether they stick with the policy of introducing fresh blood, or start the process of internal competition for places.

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The difference is whether you systematically introduce people and give them two or three tests to stake their claim, or rotate players in an equal opportunity scenario.

It's about whether they want to compare, say, Liam Messam with Jerome Kaino, Beauden Barrett with Aaron Cruden, or maybe look at who's better between TJ Perenara and Tawera Kerr-Barlow.

Or do they look at Ben Smith at fullback rather than Israel Dagg? We're blessed with options in the back three but I can't help think Smith could be the world's best No 15 if he had the opportunity.

I wonder how they'll continue to develop Sam Cane. He's been good in Super Rugby, but not at the level he was last year for the All Blacks.

Depth has never been better even without Charles Piutau, Luke Romano and Dan Carter. If you think about Sonny Bill Williams returning next year, and possibly Richard Kahui, the All Blacks must be the envy of the world.

- Sunday Star Times

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