As Englishman Joe Marchant prepares to start for the Blues in their pre-season match against the Hurricanes today, New Zealand Rugby say they are open to more English players representing Kiwi sides in Super Rugby.
Marchant, a 23-year-old who played three tests for England last year, will start at centre at Onewa Domain in his side’s final pre-season game before next Friday’s competition opener against the Chiefs at Eden Park.
He is the second England test player to turn out for a New Zealand Super Rugby side following James Haskell’s season with the Highlanders in 2012, and, as the Saracens salary cap scandal continues to play out in the United Kingdom, is unlikely to be the last.
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In fact, New Zealand Rugby’s head of professional rugby Chris Lendrum said it was possible more high-profile players could seek a change of scenery Downunder as the fallout continues.
“It will be interesting to see now that they’re relegated what happens with some of their key players – their high wage players, their England players, and how the rest of the competition reacts,” Lendrum told the Herald.
“It [salary cap scandal] is not a situation I would ever see happening here, but if some of them are interested in coming out here and playing Super Rugby… we’ve got Joe Marchant playing at the Blues this year from Harlequins, our partner.
“We’re massively excited about Joe and you never know – maybe not in a Lions year next year but if someone else wants to come out and try their hand at Super Rugby we’d be really open to it.
“In those situations players have to drive it. Joe drove his decision to come here, just like James Haskell did seven or eight years ago because they want to try a different style of rugby in a different environment.”
The experience is a key factor; England’s test stars would never travel to New Zealand for the money but if Marchant enjoys his time here as much as Haskell did, a Downunder sabbatical may hold a little more appeal for those in Blighty. The garrulous Haskell later said in an interview that he was paid only $20,000 a year to play for the Highlanders, but quickly took to the southern lifestyle and years later said he still kept in touch with former coach Jamie Joseph.
The big difference between Marchant and Haskell is they came to New Zealand at opposite ends of their test careers. Marchant is said to have a big future at England and raised a few eyebrows back home with his move, while for Haskell it was a near final roll of the dice.
Marchant’s decision came at a good time for the Blues as they faced up to the loss of midfielders Ma’a Nonu and Sonny Bill Williams, and the selection of Leon MacDonald’s midfield next week will be highly anticipated.
It’s possible MacDonald may take a cautious approach and put Marchant on the reserves bench and start Rieko Ioane at centre, with TJ Faiane or Harry Plummer at second-five, as the Englishman adapts to his new surroundings and competition, but his pace and power may quickly be irresistible.
“It’s been a fast-paced pre-season – everything is done at top speed,” Marchant said after being named in the midfield alongside captain Faiane. “It helps having such perfect conditions to train in. I was on the phone with family back home and it’s -1 degC and I’m on my way to training in 25degC.”
Harbour’s All Black prop Karl Tu’inukuafe, who missed the World Cup squad and had surgery in the off-season, will also play the first half for the Blues.
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