These are hardly the first All Blacks sabbaticals, but they should definitely be the last.
Honestly, if being an elite All Black – because it’s only the better performers and earners who are afforded these paid holidays – is such a chore, then we ought to start car pooling. Yep, I’ll knock up a roster and we can all take turns driving our disaffected stars to the airport.
Not for another sabbatical, mind. No, if having to play rugby in New Zealand really is all too much for these blokes then they’re welcome to go for good.
As it stands, Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick are off playing in Japan. Beauden Barrett’s on some kind of extended annual leave, as he tends to be at the start of most seasons, but has also teed up a deal in Japan to be taken in the next year or two.
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Whitelock, in an act of true selflessness, will return to New Zealand for the start of the test season when he’ll, presumably, be unveiled as All Blacks captain. No doubt he’ll talk about what an honour and privilege that is, as opposed to hardship that was captaining the Crusaders.
Let’s linger on Whitelock for a minute, who’s contracted to New Zealand Rugby (NZR) until the end of 2023. Should he hang around that long, he’ll attend a fourth Rugby World Cup.
He won’t be an old man, at 34, but will have put a huge amount of miles into the legs. Whitelock’s already played 115 tests and, to be absolutely honest, looked a little jaded by the end of last year’s World Cup.
His mental toughness is legendary but you do wonder about the wisdom of NZR signing him to such a lengthy deal.
Retallick will be back next year and, like Whitelock, is already an all-time All Blacks great. He’s said he considered going overseas for good and, frankly, once a guy’s talking like that, then maybe he should leave.
This idea that NZR have to go cap in hand to these blokes and say ‘pretty please with sugar on top, we’d love you to stay’ is actually kind of pathetic. They prefer to paint it as pragmatic and point to these stints as mechanisms by which guys can refresh, boost their bank accounts and still be a valuable commodity to the All Blacks.
Japanese clubs simply offer more money that NZR can and it’s a win for everyone, we’re told.
Thing is, none of us really begrudge these guys their dough. If they want to earn bigger bucks overseas then, as I said, we’re happy to give them a lift to the airport.
It’s just that when we’re battling away on a fifth, or with luck maybe a tenth, of what the best All Blacks are on, it’s hard to hear them cry poor and say they need a stint in Japan to boost the coffers.
You wonder, too, what some of their younger or less illustrious team-mates make of it.
One of the knocks on Hurricanes forward Vaea Fifita, for instance, was that he started acting like an All Black. Never mind that he actually was an All Black, he quickly found it wasn’t his place to question anything, make a show of his improved pay packet or to ask for some extra time off.
Fifita had got the wrong end of the stick you see. He’d seen other people behave that way and assumed that’s what All Blacks did. More fool him.
Equality and empowerment are among the great All Blacks myths. We’re told of the lengths the team go to to ensure everyone feels valued and able to express their opinions.
“There’s no such thing as a dumb question’’ is a staple of any All Blacks media day, as an experienced campaigner or coach talks about the ways in which they upskill the new boys.
All for one and one for all, etcetera, etcetera.
You wonder if that education includes the promise that, if you do well enough for long enough your reward will be a year off from having to play test and Super Rugby at all.
Unlike our Super franchises, the All Blacks aren’t a new-ish invention. They’ve been around a while now, with many a fine player representing the jersey with distinction.
It’s hard for any team in any sport to replace one good player with another, but year after year, decade after decade, the All Blacks have done that better than most. No matter how storied a player has been, sentiment has rarely been allowed to influence selection.
Sabbaticals are not what rugby in New Zealand is about. They take already well-compensated individuals and put them above the team and that’s not who we are.
We don’t just pride ourselves on playing 15-man rugby here because we think it looks nice, but because it’s about equality and about every person contributing to the success of the team. Of no-one being too dominant and no-one being overlooked.
If guys can’t buy into that anymore, then they’re welcome to go. Only not on sabbatical.
No, it’s time they left for good.
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