New Zealand Rugby vows to keep fighting the fight against talent raiders of north
Slowly, surely and irrefutably New Zealand rugby is being stripped of an important layer of talent, and there may not be anything the game's guardians in this country can do about it.
In the last month Aaron Cruden (Montpellier), Steven Luatua (Bristol), James Lowe (Leinster) and Tawera Kerr-Barlow (La Rochelle) have all announced they are departing New Zealand at season's end to take up rich deals in the northern hemisphere. Just before Christmas Charlie Faumuina confirmed he was off to Toulouse when his 2017 contract runs out.
In the year or two previous quality All Blacks, or fringe internationals, such as Charles Piutau, Victor Vito, Colin Slade, Tom Taylor, Francis Saili, Jeremy Thrush and Frank Halai have also bolted, joined by top-level Super Rugby talents (and potential internationals) such as James and Tom Marshall, Jamison Gibson-Park, Josh Hohneck, Tyler Bleyendaal, Robbie Fruean, Josh Bekhuis, Luke Braid, Nasi Manu, Johnny McNicholl, Willis Halaholo, Jason Woodward, John Hardie, Brendon O'Connor and Bundee Aki.
There will be others we have missed because there have been almost too many to catalogue. New Zealand is known for its world-class exports of dairy products, sheep meat, wool and wine. But to that list we should probably now add rugby players, for they are in such hot demand in France, the UK, Ireland and Japan that many can set themselves up for life with the right deal.
There is nothing profoundly new about New Zealand rugby players heading to the chief northern territories to ply their trade. But what is becoming apparent over the last year or two, and what should be causing the alarm bells to ring at NZ Rugby headquarters, is the trend towards young players either early in their test careers, or yet to have made the breakthrough, who are now bolting.
It's all very well losing a Carl Hayman or Byron Kelleher or Dan Carter once they have given years or service to the All Black jersey. But it's another matter when a Piutau shoots off having barely scratched the surface of an international career, and James Lowe does likewise when he hasn't even achieved his dream of pulling on the black jersey.
Piutau was 23 when he departed for Wasps and then Ulster; Lowe is just 24 and knocking on the door of national selection; Luatua is 25 and has played 15 tests without truly fulfilling his potential; and Tawrea Kerr-Barlow is 26 with 25 tests under his belt, and probably the form Kiwi halfback of the first month of Super Rugby.
Sure, Faumuina (30, with 46 tests) and Cruden (28, 47 tests) are a bit longer in the tooth and have had more significant test careers, but they too are key backup All Blacks whose experience is being lost just when they are at their best.
But it's the departure of the mid-20somethings, All Blacks or otherwise, just approaching their peaks that hurts New Zealand rugby, and decimates a strata that is crucial in the enduring quality of our game. These are the men who set the tone in their franchises, who mentor the younger players, who perform week-in, week-out with unerring consistency.
They are also the men who keep the premier All Blacks honest. Who breathe down their necks as positional rivals and who slot in when an injury strikes. Imagine if Ryan Crotty had been let go when Sonny Bill Williams suddenly went down midway through last year?
There has also been a sea change from clubs in the north. Once they were content to sign older internationals for their reputations and wring the last little bit out of their long careers. But now they've finally twigged that they're better investing in players with upside and a spring in their step.
NZR General Manager Rugby Neil Sorensen says player retention remains one of the biggest issues in the Kiwi game but they don't feel like it's escalating out of control.
"We have limited resources, and even if we had another $100 million we'd still probably struggle to keep all the players we'd like to. It's a good healthy challenge, we're up for it, but we're realists too.
"In a situation like Kerr-Barlow's you're desperate to keep them, but you're also desperately happy for them that they've made a decision and they're going to hopefully have a fantastic time the next six or seven years. That's what a good employer does."
Adds All Black selector Grant Fox: "We want to keep everybody. We also know that's not realistic. NZ Rugby, in my humble opinion, does a great job, with limited financial resources, keeping as many players as we do. Like anything, there are some battles you fight a bit harder but just because we've lost the odd one it doesn't mean we'll say 'it's too hard now'. We've just got to keep chipping away.
"We also understand how important the middle tier is, not only for [the All Blacks] but for our franchises and provinces. But it's the market at work and some of these offers from Europe are life-changing. Other guys balance that up against the benefits down the track of a longer All Black career.
"That's a tough decision for young men to make."
Sorensen again: "The talent identification and player development machine, which is not Neil Sorensen at NZ Rugby, it's the schools, the clubs and the provincial unions, we've got to make sure that machine keeps churning out talent because we're not very big and if suddenly our three top halfbacks and three top first fives all left, we'd be going 'bloody hell'."
It's an unenviable situation for NZ Rugby. They are digging as deep as they dare to keep frontline All Blacks right where they are. Limited funds remain to shore up the level below. Meanwhile those fat contracts keep getting waved under younger and younger noses.
Right now results suggest the departing talent is being replaced equitably. But lessons elsewhere indicate it's a dangerous game the southern nations are playing.
- Sunday Star Times