It’s not another team

Reading that headline you may expect this article to be about England, or perhaps Ireland. It’s not. If those teams improve enough, they might knock the All Blacks off their perch one day. In fact, a win in November at Twickenham would almost certainly take England to number 1 in the World Rankings this year. But New Zealand rugby would bounce back, it always does. This article is about something that could leave the All Blacks as a permanently weakened side.

So what is the problem?

What do these players have in common? George Moala, Malakai Fekitoa, Aaron Cruden, Lima Sopoaga, Steven Luatua, James Lowe, Charles Piutau, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Callum Gibbins, Brad Shields, Charlie Faumuina, Victor Vito and Colin Slade.

Greatest threat to the All Blacks is probably players like Steven Luatua leaving after making a mark with the team.
Greatest threat to the All Blacks is probably players like Steven Luatua leaving after making a mark with the team.
Photo: Andrew Cornaga

The answer, as you probably guessed, is every one of these players is good enough to be in the wider All Black squad. Almost all of them are capped All Blacks, in form and in their 20s. Yet none of them can be picked in the next World Cup squad because they play abroad, or soon will.

What is the scale of the exodus?

As we all know, since the game turned professional in 1995, players from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have been leaving to play in the Northern Hemisphere. South Africa alone now has more than 300 professional players playing abroad. To put that in context, Scotland and Italy between them don’t have 300 professional players in total. The story is similar in New Zealand.

When did it start?

For New Zealand, the first All Black squad member to move north while in his prime was probably Nick Evans. Many people at the time thought he was the second best fly-half in world rugby. Evans though could not see a way past Dan Carter. Rather than wait for a spot to open up, Evans chose to move to Harlequins. This may not have seemed like a big deal at the time. Yet it weakened the All Blacks. Next time the All Blacks have a 2011 moment, will a player as good as Stephen Donald be playing in France instead of whitebait fishing?

Beauden Barrett waited for Dan Carter, but how many others will wait?
Photo: Andrew Cornaga
The All Blacks are still doing great though, right?

This trend has accelerated in recent times. More and more players are moving north. Does anyone disagree that South Africa and Australia are much weaker as a result? Kiwis may say it doesn’t matter. There is always another player waiting for his chance.

I have two big problems with this argument.

Firstly, even the famed New Zealand production line can’t produce 26-year-olds with 80+ Super Rugby games and 20 caps. When the Beauden Barrett’s and the Ben Smith’s aren’t available, the All Blacks have spent time and energy into making sure they have a Lima Sopoaga or a Charles Piutau ready to step in. Except now they don’t. They have to develop the next set of kids instead. The likes of Richie Mo’unga or Jordie Barrett might well prove to be great players eventually, but they will need time to amass the experience of those who left. In the meantime, the All Blacks will be weaker.

Secondly, why do New Zealand always have someone else waiting for their turn? There are many reasons. A huge part of it though is because there is so much depth. Really good players are playing at lower levels of the pyramid than they would in England or France. This depth of quality drives the standards of young players higher if they want a place in their team. There is a positive feedback loop of depth leading to quality leading to more depth. It has developed over a long period of time. It would be difficult to get back once lost.

Losing the middle class

New Zealand are losing what I like to call the “middle class”; players who are not top stars for the All Blacks but are standouts for their Super Rugby franchises. They should be driving those above them to higher standards and pushing those below them to be better if they want to rise up the ladder. They are the engine for that depth of quality.

Ireland and England have both improved a lot in recent times. One thing they have in common is a much-improved system of developing talent. They also keep nearly all their best players at home. Their teams are now full of young, hungry, promising players. Their middle class has expanded rapidly. South Africa and Australia have lost many of their middle class, and both their Super Rugby and national teams are suffering as a result. If New Zealand continues to lose their middle class too, it is only a matter of time before they find that production line slowing down.

One suggestion that might help fix the problem

Until recently, New Zealand’s policy for keeping their talent at home was working. They could afford to use the lure of the black jersey and it was working. They didn’t suffer like South Africa or even Australia. That doesn’t seem the case anymore.

When players like David Havili start leaving as well, the rot would have set in properly.
Photo: Joseph Johnson

I don’t know for sure how to fix the problem, I only know the old solution is no longer going to work. If I were in charge of the NZRU, I would look at a Super Rugby caps rule, where anyone with a certain number of caps in that competition could move abroad and still play for the All Blacks. You might have a selectorial preference for those playing at home but you would allow people to leave.

As an example, Lima Sopoaga is 26 and has played over 70 games in Super Rugby. If the rule said 100 Super Rugby caps is enough, would he have joined Wasps? He may have chosen to stay until he was 30. He could have played in the 2019 World Cup.

In conclusion

The All Blacks are losing too many of a certain type of player. He is in his mid-20s, has a handful of caps and a few seasons of Super Rugby under his belt. He is the backbone of the game. Why would New Zealand be any different to South Africa or Australia? If New Zealand can’t keep more of those players, it can’t be a good thing for the health of New Zealand rugby.

Author: Daniel Pugsley

I am a 31 year old from Yorkshire, England. I have played social rugby for 25 years in England, Japan, Italy, Poland and the UAE. I play for Abu Dhabi Harlequins 3rds and coach the U6s where my daughter plays. I teach English as a foreign language, which explains why I’ve lived in so many places. I am new to sports writing, but why should the Quins lads be the only ones to suffer my ramblings!

10 COMMENTS

  1. Don’t worry about it Danny, I trust the AB brains trust to maintain our winning way. Englands gotta make its way through the 6 nations undefeated before having a go at no. 1 at the end of the year. All three celtic nations are looking good, if they beat Scotland, Ireland and Wales and then the ABs at the end of the year then you won’t hear any whinging from kiwis

    • Hi Craigus, I do believe the ABs will make the most of what they have and continue to be trend setters and innovators. But that performance ceiling will be lower without the players who keep the A-listers honest and who fit in without lowering standards too much when the first choice gets injured or loses form.

      As for England, we are underrated by a self-flagellating English press. According to them, we are only about the 3rd best team in the NH! I think they read far too much into European form.

      England have a 60/40 game (because it’s at home, it would be 50/50 in Dublin) against the Irish for a grand slam. Scotland’s tight 5 has been decimated by injury and they need to get parity up front to have a fighting chance. Wales have lost a third of their starting team, including their halfbacks, and the game isn’t in Cardiff this time either. France and Italy would have to perform way, way above themselves to have any hope. My money is on England to put that #1 spot on the table.

  2. Hi Daniel, interesting article, with excellent timing given the alternative view in Ollie’s article the other day.

    I will expand on my comment there. I think that any relaxing of the current would only increase the player drain, like we’ve seen in South Africa and Australia, who have lost actual first string players. We’ve only lost back ups since Hayman and McAlister left way back in 2007.

    The present situation isn’t ideal, but it’s the best we can hope for without a change in World Rugby rules or finances.

    Steve Hansen said last year that he doesn’t look much at these “B” class players. It’s the young “C’s” he is interested in – they are the ones who might become A’s. To use an analogy, you don’t want to lose half the forest, but if a few medium sized trees are taken away, there is room for saplings to compete and one will become a giant.

    • Hi JD Kiwi, thanks for the kind comment. Maybe you are right about dealing with the player drain. I can give you an absolute fact though, some of your European based players will be better than members of the 2019 AB World Cup squad. The superstars will also find it harder to maintain their absolute top level if they aren’t in any danger of missing out on the 23. The management can do what they want to mitigate but it is a very rare player who can consistently be at his absolute best without realistic competition for his place.

      I believe Jordan Larmour has a better chance of fulfilling his world beating potential now James Lowe is around to learn from and train with. And Shaun Stevenson will find it harder to develop his without Lowe around. Repeat that enough times and you become South Africa. Do you agree?

      • Hi Daniel

        I agree it’s not ideal, but firmly believe that the current strict policy minimises the damage. It’s no coincidence that the top three teams in the world are NZ, England and Ireland. (Remember the calls in 2015 to select a certain English flanker who was player of the year in France?) Australia and South Africa have relaxed their policies, and they have first XV players going North.

  3. Hi Daniel thanks for a great article.
    As a South African we have become very used to player drain. I really do believe the problems are specifically felt in Super Rugby. Without a strong Super Rugby the national sides will always suffer (Springbok Rugby is at a super low).
    I think we could easily come up with solutions to keep the top 30 players but how to keep the other top 160 Super Rugby players to keep the 30 honest.
    I only really started noticing New Zealand player drain after seeing James Lowe playing in Europe, I rated him in Super Rugby and now he has gone north. New Zealand maybe has not felt it as much yet because the lure of playing for the AB’s is real and still holds a lot of sway, but the salaries go up every season so it is only a matter of time.
    How can we compete when the Top14 salary cap is double Australia Super Rugby cap (I know your article is on New Zealand but could only find figures for Australia).
    For me the solutions cant be solved in the individual countries, I do feel SANZAAR need to come up with the solution that benefits all member countries, but that would require a lot of sport political will, and some creative revenue solutions.
    I mean real out of the box thinking. Here is the kind of thinking and I am by no way saying this is a solution, but an example of creative revenue thought. SANZAAR could purchase one or two PRO14 or Premiership clubs and use this for mostly Southern Hemisphere players, so we still have control over player welfare but have access to markets and merchandising outside current streams.
    But a great article and it would be nice to try and think of possible solutions.

    • Hi Donovan, thanks for the generous comment! I have three possible solutions really.

      One is a World Rugby forcing the French, Japanese and English Unions in particular, and/or their clubs, to pay significant compensation alongside a transfer fee when a player developed somewhere else moves abroad.

      One is the SANZAR countries altering their policies so that it is not about how many caps a player has before moving, as they may develop more while abroad (eg. CJ Stander, Scott Spedding, Don Armand). Instead it should be: play 8 full seasons in your home country as a professional, then you can move north and remain eligible for the national team. I believe almost everyone would want to keep their International options open, forcing them to stay until they are 27-30.

      The last is World Rugby, the Unions or the Clubs themselves imposing a low (and potentially illegal under EU law) maximum quota of foreigners in any squad and match day 23.

      How would you go about it?

      • Hi Daniel

        I really like your second option, about playing 8 full seasons before going north. But maybe something like 6-8 seasons. So all players across all levels so for us it would be Currie Cup, Pro14 and Super Rugby.

        Also maybe have a payment (transfer fee) that needs to be made to the specific franchise, National Rugby Union and SANZAAR for the cost of developing the player. Then there is at least money coming in to develop the next wave of players. Not sure what these figures would be, but there must be millions invested to develop player’s from junior level to the Super Level, not to mention the costs developing an All Black. So at a minimum some of these costs should be clawed back.

        If European clubs have to pay $100k – $500k transfer fees depending on players skills, at least there is the cash to keep growing Rugby locally.

        I do feel this is one of the biggest threats to Southern Hemisphere Rugby.

        Thanks again for the article.

  4. Hi Daniel

    What you mentioning as a threat to NZ rugby is something a few said about SA Rugby almost a 10 years ago. In fact it’s a threat we have seen affecting small southern hemisphere rugby countries like Tonga, Somoa, and Fiji and if it eventually affects another power house like NZ rugby it will force sanzaar to think of innovative solutions. In theory we would like it to not affect NZ rugby but unfortunately to get the so called leaders to be effective something bad should happened. The northern hemisphere has benefited a lot from southern hemisphere and I think it’s time sanzaar does something but that will only happen when southern hemisphere rugby becomes weak and maybe by that time they will not have enough influence to try and amend law or create new ones.

    • Hi Mvano, thanks for the comment. I think you are right, South Africa was the giant canary in the coal mine a decade ago and rugby is allowing the whole southern hemisphere to follow them. Right now I don’t think Sanzaar countries have ever been weaker relative to the British and Irish. If South Africa were to attempt a Grand Slam tour this year they would be underdogs for every game. Australia are a bit better but even then, they would only be favourites in Cardiff. How would you go about fixing it if you were in charge?

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