There is a lesson to be learned for European-bound New Zealanders from the drama that has ensued from Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal’s unjust lambasting of Julian Savea.
For top-class New Zealand players who reach a point in their career whereby they feel as though they don’t much left to contribute to the All Blacks, or that they’ve reached the peak of their abilities and are looking to cash in on their talents before the opportunity passes by, the offers put forward by cashed-up European clubs are frequently seen as an ideal outlet to prolong their playing careers.
Six to seven-figure wages are often thrown at New Zealand internationals, far more than what many could yield if they were to stay and continue to ply their trade for the All Blacks and in Super Rugby.
The wealth evident within Europe is by no means a secret, and the ongoing struggle to keep a vast range of All Blacks on these shores has been well documented.
The past few seasons has seen the premature departures of Savea, Lima Sopoaga, Malakai Fekitoa, Aaron Cruden, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Charlie Faumuina, Charles Piutau, Charlie Ngatai, Steven Luatua, Seta Tamanivalu and George Moala, all of whom have gone north in search of greener pastures while still in their 20s with the potential to push for more test caps.
The bleeding hasn’t stopped there, with Ben Smith, Owen Franks, Waisake Naholo, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Jordan Taufua, Matt Proctor, Jeffery Toomaga-Allen and Liam Squire (to Japan rather than Europe) all confirmed to leave at the end of this year, while others such as Kieran Read, Beauden Barrett, Brodie Retallick, Aaron Smith, Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty are all widely expected to follow suit.
Clearly the lucrative lure of the Premiership and Top 14 is too much for many Kiwis to ignore, but therein lies the issue that has led to this highly publicised drama between Savea and Boudjellal and may put off others from signing with Toulon and other European outfits.
The solitary – if not primary – motivating factor for any one of those aforementioned players to sign overseas is to fill their bank balance in a way that New Zealand Rugby never could or will be able to.
For those English and French clubs chasing the signatures of these marquee players, it’s simply a case of whoever can throw the most money in the player’s face is likely to win the race for their services, such is the financial motive of the player.
That’s all well and good – nobody can deny that any one of those players doesn’t deserve the financial rewards for the reputations they had built for themselves as they came through the ranks in New Zealand.
However, the lesson that needs to be learned from this Savea-Boudjellal-Toulon outburst is that just because a club is willing to pay you the most for your services doesn’t mean they are the best team to sign for.
What blinds most New Zealand-based players and rugby followers from seeing this truth is the lack of knowledge many have of the European club rugby scene.
That much is understandable given the unwelcoming difference in time zones, with many domestic and European club matches kicking off in the early hours of the morning in the middle of the New Zealand summer.
With no real desire to follow or keep track of competitions of which have no relevance to New Zealanders and are played at the most inconvenient times of the year, there’s no wonder why Kiwis have a lack of interest or knowledge about European club rugby.
That lack of knowledge has been evident right through to the top echelon of New Zealand Rugby, as illustrated by Brodie Retallick in 2014.
The veteran All Blacks lock couldn’t name a single English player ahead of his side’s three-test series against England in June that year, with “Michael Lawes” – presumably meaning Courtney Lawes, rather than infamous former New Zealand politician Michael Laws – being the only name he could muster.
England winger Chris Ashton claimed recently in an interview with The Sun that his teammate at Toulon Malakai Fekitoa “didn’t even know what the Premiership was, he didn’t know what the European Cup was, didn’t know anything.”
Without having a common knowledge of the European club scene, how do these key All Blacks know which club is the right one to sign for?
That might be a question Savea wished he was posed prior to signing a two-year deal with Toulon last June.
Sure, the three-time European champions might have been offering more Euros than any other club pursuing Savea’s services, but did the 54-cap All Black know he was walking into a club owned by an extremely temperamental owner who has the wealth, power and willingness to cut his employees at the drop of a hat without a hint of remorse?
The same question could be asked of Nehe Milner-Skudder, who could be second-guessing his decision to link up with his former Hurricanes teammate in the south of France after inking a three-season deal with Toulon earlier this year.
Before Savea was verbally crucified by Boudjellal, did Milner-Skudder know that behind the thick wad of cash that the owner is set to pay him is a toxic club environment whereby the likes of Welsh halfback Rhys Webb and French first-five Anthony Belleau have also reportedly been savaged by the multi-millionaire businessman, and where the club’s fans have mercilessly trolled Savea and his family online for his understandably underwhelming performances, given he’s been played predominantly out of position at second-five?
Does Naholo understand that, by joining London Irish, he’s signing for an English club that isn’t even in the top tier of English rugby, and will probably struggle to stay there once they win promotion back into the Premiership?
Similar questions can be asked of Ben Smith, who is preparing to join a battling Pau outfit who remain stuck in the bottom half of the Top 14.
For these title-laden stars, who have World Cup and Super Rugby accolades to their names, even the fattest cheques might not be enough to quench their thirst for success when the likes of Toulon, London Irish and Pau continue to struggle in their respective domestic competitions next season.
With unstable off-field environments and diminishing on-field success a common theme at these clubs that the likes of Milner-Skudder, Naholo, and Smith are signing for, it has to be questioned whether New Zealand players have a necessary understanding of the European club landscape upon signing mega-rich deals.
While he is certainly the victim of overly harsh and unfair comments, perhaps if Savea knew more about the club he was walking into rather than thinking solely about how much profit he was set to reel in, then he could well have been spared the disrespect and humiliation of Boudjellal.
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