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The power of the jersey


Ali Williams: Breaking down the pulling power of the black jersey

Former All Blacks test lock Ali Williams dives into the great debate surrounding the decision to re-sign with New Zealand Rugby and the pulling power of the black jersey.

The power of the black jersey and its influence on the decision to re-sign with New Zealand Rugby is an area of huge debate.

Just how you make the decision obviously changes and has cycles depending on where New Zealand Rugby is in terms of the coaches and form and the like.

At the end of the day I’d put it down quite simply and ask, do you want to be the best in the world? Do you want to be the best rugby player that you can ever be? If that’s the case then you stay in the country and you strive to be a great All Black.

If competing for a spot in the national side is not your be-all and end-all then the possibilities of going offshore are a lot more attractive.

When I re-signed – I re-signed several times – but I remember in 2007 we probably had a crux of guys leaving after the World Cup. I was 26 or 27, and was reaching the point where I could potentially get a decent eight-year stint overseas, or I could delay it for another four or five years, go to another World Cup and then move on, or hang the boots up.

After we’d lost at the 2007 World Cup, a whole group of us came to a decision. It was always going to help if a group of us had collectively said hold on, we’re going to stay in this together. I was fortunate enough to do that with people like Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock – Tony and I did our contracts simultaneously – Dan Carter and Richie McCaw.

We all collectively said why don’t we stick in this and try one more time to win it in 2011. We knew the coaches we re-signing so having continuity there helped as well.

That’s why I like the look of TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett, they constantly talk about doing things together and forming combinations. I understand that you’re an individual player when it comes to a contract, but you’re still a collective unit when it comes to being on the team so knowing that you’ve got time to work on a relationship is good.

As for the draw of staying in New Zealand? As I said previously, I think it comes down to whether you want to be the best in the world. If you want to be the greatest, then you stay here. The other factors you weight up are things like lifestyle and money. In all fairness, your money level does depend on your ranking in that All Blacks squad or within NZR. If you’re at the top then the money – at our time – wasn’t considerably different, but for the bottom or middle tier All Blacks there is a potential financial upside if they move overseas.

I think more of the willingness to move overseas is around the guarantee of that income. With the All Blacks, you’re not guaranteed selection, which is the beauty of the team but also the risk and the hard part. They can’t please everyone.

If you’re the second-string 10, you’re sitting there thinking how long do I bide my time, how long do I stick it out when there’s money on the table overseas and a lifestyle and kids to think about. When you’re overseas, you’re away from the family for a maximum of about 48 hours, two nights. It makes a huge difference considering with Super Rugby you can be away for three and a half weeks. With the All Blacks you can be away for a lot longer. All of those factors come into the decision.

NZR are looking at different ways of handling those external factors. How can they facilitate options outside of rugby, in terms of players’ partners, kids, life after. And that’s the element that I believe NZR should be focused on. They can’t just rely on the pull of the jersey as
professional sport is a career path that people choose at a young age and hence have to capitalise on it as it’s only a period of your life not like other careers that consume longer periods of life. The more they look outside the square the better their player retention will be.

Making the transition after a career in sport isn’t easy, so if you can set players up into something during rugby for when post-rugby comes I think it’s going to help that transition. If you look at rugby as a stage and chapter of your life then that’s more important than an extra 100,000 pounds for one or two years overseas.

In saying that, I loved my time overseas. It opens your mind to something completely different. A different lifestyle, a different mentality. We are very dominant here in terms of how we do things in New Zealand, but overseas you learn that there’s a few different ways to skin a cat.

I really enjoyed being somewhere new, it changed me as a person so make that decision based on what type of rugby player you want to be or what stage you’re at in your career.

I probably did it two years too late, but in hindsight I could also say I did it perfectly, so I do challenge those people that have the option.

When I decided it was my time to head overseas, I sat down with John Kirwan and said look mate, I can’t keep up anymore. The rugby’s too fast and to be honest, the reason I left the All Blacks was because I knew I couldn’t be great anymore. I knew that I couldn’t do the training to do what I needed to do. So once that decision was made it was purely about how long do I want to play rugby for and then I got an opportunity to play in France where the training’s different and the speed of the game’s different.

In terms of short-term sabbaticals, you’ve got to understand what it’s about. For me, if it’s about money, then it’s not a sabbatical. It’s an experience. What that needs to be is a collective arrangement with NZR saying you can go, these are the boundaries if you still want to be contracted to us. If you want a sabbatical in terms of a rest, I’m in complete support of that but I think we’re diluting two things.

Take the recently departed Lima Sopoaga for example. If we said to him you can go for two years, you’re not under contract with us but we still want to have a relationship with you at the All Blacks then there’s open dialogue there.

NZR would be saying go and make your money, go and do your thing. We’re still here and the book’s open and this is what we expect from you but you’ve got to be proactive and if you intend to come back in two years, great. I would also say that there needs to be a commitment from the player that they will come back or at least have a genuine commitment to come back.

If it’s the other way around where it’s no, I just need more money, well go and do your own thing. I think that the door needs to be open earlier in a rugby player’s career where they can go overseas for two years and then come back. But at 28, to go overseas and then think that you can come back, that’s a challenge you need to be willing to accept.

Rugby World Cup City Guide – Kumamoto:

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Ali Williams: Breaking down the pulling power of the black jersey