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.
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?
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.
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.
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 teach English as a foreign language, which explains why I’ve lived in so many places. I recently moved back to England and have had to take a break from playing, but I hope to pull on the boots again soon.