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Let’s not pretend you have to play in New Zealand to be an All Black

By Hamish Bidwell
New Zealand's openside flanker and captain Sam Cane walks on the field with his silver medal after South Africa won the France 2023 Rugby World Cup Final match between New Zealand and South Africa at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, on the outskirts of Paris, on October 28, 2023. (Photo by Anne-Christine POUJOULAT / AFP) (Photo by ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP via Getty Images)

We already pick the All Blacks from overseas.


Sure, most of them deign to return from sabbaticals in order to gain re-selection in the side, but let’s not pretend you have to play all your rugby in New Zealand to be an All Black.

Sam Cane, the potentially-outgoing captain of the side, is the latest to wonder aloud if our eligibility criteria should change.

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Cane cited South Africa, who successfully cobbles players together from Europe and Japan and churns out Rugby World Cup-winning teams, as an example of how that policy can work.

Our top players appear reluctant to play in New Zealand (NZR). Just look at all the fringe or former All Blacks headed overseas, or the star players off on sabbatical or who have sabbaticals in their NZR contracts.

It’s a stretch to say they all play here under sufferance, but not a big one.

You can talk about the lure of the black jersey all you like, but many of those who wear it seem content to do so on a part-time basis. They certainly don’t appear to have a huge appetite for Super Rugby.

I get this from a NZR and Sky Television point of view.

They need Super Rugby to be attracting eyeballs. They use stars to sell the game to viewers and the fewer the stars, the fewer the eyeballs.


So why all the sabbaticals, then? Why do we lose Beauden Barrett to Japan on a semi-annual basis? Why put a sabbatical in Ardie Savea’s contract? Why do the same for Jordie Barrett?

They’re either playing here or they’re not.

The old argument used to be that our domestic or franchise competitions were stronger than others around the world. That form elsewhere wasn’t a patch on performances here.

That doesn’t wash anymore, in part because we give so many players the opportunity to rest up and cash up in Japan during our Super Rugby season.

I’d have more sympathy for NZR – and their apologists, who insist the very fabric of our game would be ripped apart if we picked All Blacks from overseas – if we didn’t already do it in piecemeal fashion.


If the rule was hard and fast, then fine.

But it’s not.

It’s got loopholes everywhere.

Funding club rugby isn’t sending NZR broke. It’s not the cost of staging the Heartland Championship that forced NZR into a deal with private equity firm Silver Lake.

Trying to pay All Blacks their market value is by far the greatest drain on their resources.

That’s partly why they sweeten deals with lucrative sabbaticals.

I’ve argued many times that I have no philosophical objection to passing that financial burden onto overseas clubs on a full-time basis.

But I come back to the competition side of things.

There’s now better rugby for our All Blacks to be playing than what’s on offer here.

Test rugby, particularly of the type that wins World Cups, is best-prepared for in Europe. It’s not in romps over the Rebels or Moana Pasifika.

Our national team, in which the success of the whole NZR model depends, would be better for players being based in France, Ireland or England.

In doing so, perhaps the All Black careers of players such as Richie Mo’unga and Leicester Fainga’anuku, whose best Test footy is still in front of them, might be prolonged.

Don’t give me the argument that Super Rugby would suffer or that fans would stop watching. They’re not watching now, our governing body is battling to find a sustainable model for it and the All Blacks haven’t won a World Cup since 2015.

If that’s what fixed looks like, I’d hate to see broken.

So do one thing or the other. Make players be based in New Zealand for the entirety of the All Black careers or open the floodgates to overseas.

But don’t incentivise sabbaticals in Japan and tell me you have to be based here to be an All Black.


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Sinenhlanhla 230 days ago

Well in SA a number of world class players want to return and play for SA franchises 😏👌

Jon 232 days ago

The ability to earn GBP / Euros and play against the best intl players every week is good for the Springboks longer-term. Not fair to make players choose between a career/earnings and their country. I hope NZ continue to only select from domestic players but the truth is both RSA and NZ are small economies for teams with star players who should command 1m+ salaries (Finn, Etzie, Ardie)

NHinSH 233 days ago

30 caps then you can be selected from overseas, frees up resources, gives more opportunity for young players to come through, easy

Bob Marler 233 days ago

The bots are predictable.

Nickers 233 days ago

The reality is that there is rarely an overseas based players that would be selected for the ABs. Most who leave during their prime playing years have been overlooked for ABs selection. Over the past 10 years who would we have wanted to select for the ABs? Piutau, although as outside back in NZ there is always someone new to step up. No one for 8 years, now Mo’unga. Going back even further Nick Evans and Carly Hayman. I’m probably missing a few but I make it a grand total of 4 players over the past 16 years who would have still been selected for the ABs while playing overseas.

I would much rather have Savea away for 6 months on a sabbatical and miss very few ABs games, vs. sign a 2 year+ deal and play what could be the best years of his career for La Rochelle or Toulon.

This article ignores the fact that our U20 programme has been neglected and young guys coming through are 1) not as good as they used to be 2) definitely not as good as players coming through France, Ireland, and England U20s.

Jon 233 days ago

Hamish is onto something here (despite not showing any reasoning or examples for his points), NZ rugby might be better off if they went back to just forcing players to commit to SR and then force themselves to commit to the next generation when those players are no longer ready to commit to SR.

Right now, with the current crop/examples, I’m not sure having access to these players is worth it. Retallick was not worth signing back for most of his return, and I’m picking they will want him back again, but especially Beauden has not been worth trying to increase is longevity/availability, so far at least.

I’m wondering if it would not be better to go back to calling time on players early again. They considered McCaw and Carter success stories, and they were great comebacks, but maybe they were clouded to the performances they put out for the ABs try to stretch that far (McCaw is a legend and he probably never thought of leaving so fair deuce sticking with him, and Carter missed out on the big moment in 2011) and are trying to repeat?

Going back to a 4-8 year cycle of players at their peak might be what they should try for again. Best of both worlds, continual development of players, with less future stars leaving, and once finished Internationally they get more rich offshore contracts/years.

CO 233 days ago

South Africa is a failed state with it's players very happy to take themselves anywhere but home.

Not really a compelling example for NZ rugby to need to follow.

Timezones are beneficial to SA players and viewership numbers with the European competition's.

Super rugby and NPC aren't perfect and need to change potentially into one comp rather than two.

The Allblacks coach should be allowed to pick players from overseas if they wish but only in an emergency through injuries.

Both Richie and Leicester are fantastic players and no reason why Razor shouldn't be allowed to call on them if injury strikes before a world cup where they’ve an insufficient window to develop a replacement.

Reality is that NZ players need to be very aware that they are severely unlikely to be called up if they've signed long term contracts to play offshore.

The current test rugby issues with it being stop/start, TMO addled rugby have been a massive windfall for the Boks. A game where you tackle, tackle, tackle but they still required amazing amounts of luck to score three points across three games in order to win RWC 2023.

It's an aberration that the winning side scored none of their own points, no tries and zero second half points against the Allblacks in the final. The clearly better side lost so no need to upend the NZ game simply because it's only made the semi’s and final in the last two campaign's.

Silk 233 days ago

We feared for SA rugby when they changed they the rule to selecting overseas based players. It had the opposite effect. SA rugby improved dramatically. Our players based at European clubs improved dramatically. Faf and Kolbe are examples of that. When they left for Europe they were also rans. Their skills and mindset improved to a large extent.
We feared that our provincial sides would be depleted and watered down. What happened was that huge numbers of talented young players got the opportunity to play for the Bulls etc, where they would not gave if the Bok stars were here. I.e Moodie, Libbock etc.
The depth of SA rugby has increased tremendously.
The overseas based Boks added more value to the Bok team having been exposed to different coaching and playing styles.
I think NZ rugby should open up and let the AB players play where the want to.
The benefits are huge

Andrew 233 days ago

The all that we’ll ever see best ABs playing will be in the RWC as 1. the clubs wont release them for mid yr and EOY tours 2. The best players would be given massive bonuses not to play test rugby… .like half the best PI players.

flyinginsectshrimp 233 days ago

Absolutely agree.

I think the All Blacks would be stronger for selecting France and Japan-based players.

Super Rugby will never again be stronger than the French leagues. NZ’s younger players need to learn from the pressure and grind of the Top14; and the older players would do well with the lighter workload of JRLO. The upshot of this is that NZR’s salary burden is lessened, allowing more investment in grassroots, provincial and Super rugby.

The collective knowledge and skills of players gathered from other leagues would be greater than that of players who are competing against 5 decent Super teams.

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