There is growing concern that New Zealand rugby's new contracting landscape will create unsustainable bidding wars and render Super Rugby franchise boundaries irrelevant.
It is fast becoming clear that two recent changes, first to direct franchise contracting, and now to a private ownership model, have shifted the goal posts.
The latter is causing the most recent angst with concerns that third party deals will become an accepted, and possibly expected, part of the negotiation process for top players.
"Ultimately the whole contracting framework is going to have to be considered because there is always that financial sustainability issue," Hurricanes chairman Brian Roche said. "If we just end up playing the money game then I think that's going to be hard. Successful franchises don't just play the money game."
Roche isn't naive, but he hopes coaching quality, culture, pride in the jersey and various other intangibles will draw players to the Hurricanes rather than money alone.
But as chief executive of New Zealand Post he also knows money talks, and agrees that English football provides a glimpse of what nobody wants to see in New Zealand rugby: a market where the richest clubs hoover up the best talent simply by way of their buying power.
"As a fan and an administrator I think that would be sad. Rugby has reinvented itself since 1996 so it has done some things and it has learnt and consolidated," Roche said.
"Everyone involved in rugby is passionate about the product and its sustainability.
"I don't have the exact answer and I don't think anyone in the Hurricanes does, but we'll have to find an answer which addresses player needs with financial stability.
"A successful contracting process has to have balance between all the parties. If that gets skewed one way against the players or the franchise then there is a problem.
"I don't think we are there yet, but it's good to look over the next hill and say, what are the emerging issues?"
The present model sees the five Kiwi franchises get largely the same amount from the New Zealand Rugby Union's collective player payment pool.
They can contract up to 32 players at a minimum of $70,000 to a maximum of $180,000 a season, but franchises can top things up via third party deals.
It's been reported that league convert Benji Marshall will earn close to $500,000 a season for his two-year deal with the Blues.
It's a fair bet the Hurricanes had to go the extra yard to match the Blues offer for first five-eighth Beauden Barrett.
And the same is likely to apply to wing Julian Savea who is expected to re-sign with the Hurricanes but weighed up attractive offers from the Crusaders and Chiefs.
Both players highlight the other major issue being widely discussed among the franchises.
Barrett is a Taranaki boy, while Savea has black and yellow in his veins after growing up in Wellington.
If either were to leave their home franchise, then administrators and coaches alike would rightly ask themselves what the point had been in investing so much time and money in their respective development?
Franchise contracting means Super Rugby coaches don't care if their next target comes from Kaitaia or Bluff.
That's understandable, but it raises questions about the incentive, or disincentive for a franchise to invest in development programmes within Super Rugby's faded regional boundaries.
Why would the Hurricanes invest in a regional school or age grade tournament between Hawke's Bay, Manawatu and Wellington when the players it turns out could just as easily be contracted to the Crusaders?
Particularly when franchise scouts are already offering contracts to first XV players regardless of geography.
New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew is aware of the issues, but says it's too early to make any long term judgements.
"We are watching with a degree of interest to see how this evolves. We obviously don't want someone to buy up a super team," he said.
"But I would suggest the best way a franchise can retain a strong playing roster is to create an environment that is not necessarily based on the best money, but the best coaching, best analysis, best skill development and the best team spirit.
"The Chiefs haven't put together what they have by just spending a heap of money. Quite frankly they've replicated what the Crusaders have been producing for a long time."
Tew says there needs to be some realism in the debate over private equity.
"We live in an open, democratic, capitalist market economy and even if we were to pass regulations or bylaws, which would probably require Commerce Commission approval, we would have the issue of whether we'd have a hope in hell of policing it?
"How do we stop a particular individual saying, 'Look mate I'd like to give you a couple of hundred grand to come around for a barbecue every second weekend?' You can't.
"There have been third party deals in the system for some time, not many, but some ... private ownership has brought some of those deals closer to the table."
And though it's early days, Tew is confident that the model will keep players in New Zealand.
"You have to look at both sides of the ledger. We have a reasonable amount of money to spend on keeping players in this country, but it's not in any way going to compete with money overseas.
"So there's an upside to having some independent capital coming into the game to retain players. Yes, it might increase a bit of competition between franchises, but I'd rather have it between our franchises than between Japanese and French clubs."
He believes player and agent behaviour will be regulated by the market. "I can understand a young player taking a deep breath and checking what the market can do for him right now. But he would be looking as much at what he's going into as what he'll get paid.
"If a player developed a reputation for only signing one-year deals even third parties would get sick of contracting those guys because they aren't long term investments.
"Third parties want a sustainable success, they don't want one night wonders. I've heard [Blues part-owner] Murray Bolton speak in public a number of times about his interest in the Blues and he's there for the long haul.
"He's not interested in short-term gains and sees the Blues as becoming a predominant force in southern hemisphere rugby forever. He wants to be part of it."
Tew is more concerned at the targeting of young players. "The key issue for us is we don't get relativities out of whack. Players are worth a certain amount based on their ability and experience.
"I'm concerned about what's happening at the next tier down with young players.
"We don't want a whole lot of school kids being paid a lot of money to go and be warehoused and immediately thinking they are the best thing since Julian Savea.
"They need to do some hard yards and prove they are capable of being professional rugby players before they are paid like it.
"All we can do is create the environment where our young kids aspire to be professional rugby players in this country and ultimately to be All Blacks."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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