In New Zealand, we are very good at producing quality rugby players. What's missing is the right vehicle to promote them
Pablo Matera should merely be the start.
In an ideal world, all of rugby’s global superstars should be wanting to play in New Zealand.
Or Australia or South Africa, or wherever the Southern Hemisphere draws its rugby franchises from in the future.
Critics said distributing our All Blacks amongst the provinces wouldn’t sell, that there wasn’t a market for a 14-team tournament.
We stuck to the five franchises we had and – frankly – got pretty bored of that before too long. Although at least we’ve seen some contests in the two seasons of Super Rugby Aotearoa. It seems we’ll be waiting a while to have that replicated in the trans-Tasman equivalent.
I’m thrilled to see Matera will play for the Crusaders in 2022.
Too bad if his presence denies Joe Bloggs a bit of game time. If Joe isn’t good enough to play ahead of the Argentine, then maybe Joe isn’t destined for test football anyway.
In the end, rugby is one of the great meritocracies, so Matera won’t play unless he’s good enough to either.
But imagine having him as your yardstick and discovering you were as good, if not better. That would do a huge amount for the confidence of any young Crusaders loose forward.
For the rest of us, Matera offers a welcome point of difference.
We’ve had a few goes at franchise rugby and never really got them right. Just as we’ve made tentative attempts to promote private ownership among our five Super sides.
If this year has taught us anything, it’s that we’ll watch good All Blacks playing franchise football anywhere. And not only will we watch and read and tweet about Brodie Retallick and Beauden Barrett and TJ Perenara’s performances in Japan, we’ll pick them for national duty from there too.
It’s time that players were able to be All Blacks-eligible from Canberra or Johannesburg or wherever. Just as it’s time for our franchise sides to start signing a host of players from other nations too.
Where’s protectionism getting rugby in Australia? Sure the players are Wallabies-eligible, but a large number of them are also rubbish. How’s that helping rugby’s brand?
Do England and France and, increasingly, Japan always have to boast the best domestic tournaments? Are we going to forever develop players so they can go and enhance rugby in other nations? Why can’t we have proper professional rugby in this part of the world as well?
In places like New Zealand and Australia we pay people to play rugby, but that’s not to say we have professional rugby. We don’t.
If we had that, then players such as Matera would be a dime a dozen among our franchises.
In New Zealand, we are very good at producing quality rugby players. What’s missing is the right vehicle to promote them.
The All Blacks are phenomenal and a great international brand, but franchises are world sport’s real bread and butter.
Football has its world cups and various international championships, but these are effectively played in the offseason. Real football is league football. The same is true of basketball.
Even cricket has gone down a road where players are excused from national duty so that they’re able to prepare for, or recover from, their Indian Premier League commitments.
We can keep rugby insular here, if we like. We can keep the Materas of the world out and we can deny players Japanese sabbaticals and we can zealously safeguard the brand of the mighty All Blacks.
We can also go broke in the process, most probably.
Or we can at least begin the conversation about a real professional tournament and about true private ownership and about picking players for the All Blacks from wherever their latest contract takes them.
We need a club or provincial or franchised-based vehicle for our best players and Super Rugby Trans-Tasman is not it. It’s just not. And nor is it likely to become one in the short to medium term.
So what do we want and how do we get it and who’s going to play in it?
COVID-19 continues to give us a chance to re-evaluate and renew. To accept the limitations or failings of the things we’ve got and to fix them up or start again.
Let’s hope Pablo Matera’s signing with the Crusaders is just the beginning.
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