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Chiefs' big signing foreshadows a bigger problem for New Zealand

By Tom Vinicombe
John Ryan. (Original photo by Charly Triballeau/AFP)

The recruitment of a 34-year-old prop from Ireland might have raised a few eyebrows in New Zealand this weekend.


John Ryan, who has accumulated 24 international caps to go along with his 201 for Munster, has been brought into the Chiefs squad as a like-for-like replacement for injured prop All Black Ta’avao.

It’s an excellent bit of business by coach Clayton McMillan and will ensure the Chiefs aren’t found wanting at scrum time.

With Ta’avao out for the season, Atunaisa Moli is the most experienced tighthead option in the original squad but his recent form has been patchy, with frustrating injuries plaguing his career ever since the 2019 Rugby World Cup. George Dyer is the other option and while he didn’t look out of place throughout 2022, next season will mark his first as a fully contracted Super Rugby player.

And while Ryan will bring a huge amount of experience and nous to the Chiefs front row, whether recruiting a foreign replacement is the best thing for the longevity of rugby in New Zealand is a different matter altogether – but a decision that’s effectively been forced upon McMillan and any other Kiwi coaches who will also have to navigate injuries when the season kicks off.

Moana Pasifika’s introduction this season put significant pressure on NZ’s playing resources, especially with Covid wreaking havoc throughout the year.

The other factor, which appears to have increased in magnitude for next season, is the growing draw of Major League Rugby.


Perhaps it’s the fact that Japan Rugby League One have tightened up their restrictions on international imports, but the MLR sides have been on a massive recruitment push over the past six months and every few days it seems that another New Zealand player on the cusp of Super Rugby selection has decided to head over to America for the upcoming season.

The likes of Mitch Jacobson, Kurt Baker, Luke Campbell, Tom Franklin, Jordan Trainor, Tom Florence, Dan Pryor, Isaac Ross, Jason Emery, Brendon O’Connor, Richard Judd, Jayson Potroz and All Blacks legend Ma’a Nonu are just some of the more well-known Kiwis who will feature in the upcoming MLR season – men who mostly either missed out on Super Rugby contracts or probably knew they weren’t going to be in the selection frame even if they had put up their hand. They might not be world beaters, but they’re strong supporting players who in seasons gone by would have been called upon when injuries struck during Super Rugby.

The list of Kiwi front-rowers plying their trade in Major League Rugby is growing too, with lesser-known figures such as Henry Bell, Tevita Langi, Jarred Adams, Gene Symington, Isaac Salmon, Joel Hintz, Ben Strang, Kyle Stewart and Nic Souchon all signed for MLR franchises in 2023.


While Covid isn’t expected to cause quite as many issues in 2023, injuries are an inevitable part of the game and when Super Rugby clubs come calling as the season draws on, the cupboards are going to be relatively bare even of semi-experienced provincial players.


The impact is especially sizeable in the front row, where props and hookers require years of technical training before they’re ready to face off with international-level scrummagers.

So while Ryan’s signing will be a boon for the Chiefs and would have been hailed as such five or 10 years ago when there was little international flavour in any of the NZ squads, it’s now as much a sign of the significant diaspora occurring in the game in recent times as it is a shrewd bit of recruitment from McMillan. New Zealand franchises should want to recruit experienced talent from overseas – but they shouldn’t have to.

The Highlanders have also looked overseas to provide cover in their outside backs, bringing in Argentinian Martin Bogado. Unlike Ryan, however, Bogado isn’t a well-known, experienced star – further emphasising the player drain that New Zealand coaches are going to have to contend with in 2023 and beyond.

The positive for the Chiefs, despite the injury to Ta’avao, is that they’re well stocked on the loosehead side of the scrum, with Aidan Ross, Ollie Norris and Jarred Proffit all proven scrummagers, and the former two now boasting ample experience at Super Rugby level.

Clayton McMillan’s men shouldn’t struggle to compete with the best forward units in the competition next year, especially at scrum time – and some of that will likely be accredited to the presence of big Irishman John Ryan – but while Ryan’s recruitment will likely benefit the Chiefs, it’s perhaps a sign of a more insidious problem New Zealand rugby is struggling with at present.


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