Savea, arguably the hottest property New Zealand Rugby has, player-wise, dropped one hell of a bombshell on Monday when he revealed on The Ice Project Podcast his desire to switch codes and play in the NRL.
What Savea didn’t say was that he would be done with rugby as a result.
The 26-year old is contracted until 2021, one year from now, but swift action must be taken in terms of NZR deciding how to best manage the situation if Savea does decide to head elsewhere.
There is an opportunity presenting itself for NZR here, but how far they budge at the negotiating table will determine whether that opportunity is lost or not.
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The key point in all of this is retention, even if that’s not immediate, because it’s not so much about Savea going to play in the NRL and turning his back on rugby, it’s about how you ensure he doesn’t turn his back on it forever – and the powers that be at NZR headquarters must surely know that. If it means letting the 44-test Hurricanes loosie go and achieve his NRL ambition after 2021 when his contract is up, so be it.
Focus on negotiating a deal that gets Savea back in the All Black jersey afterwards, anything on top of that – like convincing Savea not to leave at all – would be a gold but ultimately unrealistic nugget.
But one way or another, Savea’s services must be retained; he’s a big part of the plans for the All Blacks at the next World Cup.
His blockbusting power and speed is one thing, but it’s his versatility that is also crucial as he’s able to cover the six, seven and eight jerseys with ease.
Furthermore, he has a lot of experience in the All Black environment now and is a core part of the leadership group. When fully fit, not a single critic can logically question that Savea is up there with the best around.
In order to not see all this go up in flames, the logical decision could be to let Savea play one season in the NRL before returning to New Zealand in early 2023. Such a thing isn’t unprecedented – as the rugby-loving public will know – and shouldn’t be such an over-hyped scenario in the current landscape.
The exact make-up of New Zealand's new-look loose forward trio won't be known for a while, but it's already pretty clear who'll be part of the mix, writes @TomVinicombe. #SuperRugby @AllBlacks #AllBlacks https://t.co/0eVdag2iDF
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 23, 2020
Sonny Bill Williams left the Chiefs after his contract in New Zealand ended in 2012 to play two years with the Roosters in the NRL. Williams then returned to Super Rugby and represent the Chiefs in 2015, before joining the Blues later on after playing for the All Blacks at the World Cup.
Back in the present, in a bid to keep two of their very best, NZR have allowed Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick to play rugby in Japan this year, on the proviso that they return next year (or in 2022, in Retallick’s case) where they’ll be back with their Super Rugby franchises.
The difference between these current examples is obvious; Whitelock and Retallick are both playing rugby, not going cross-code, which is what Savea is proposing.
Furthermore, buried in the weeds of today’s bombshell is also a very valid question – does Savea want to come back once his time in New Zealand is over?
The short answer to the first question is yes, Savea clearly loves rugby and has a great deal of loyalty to both the Hurricanes and the All Blacks.
But you also sense that he won’t tolerate taking a solid no as the answer from New Zealand Rugby when it comes to furthering his sporting ambitions, whatever they might be. Post-2021, nothing is stopping him from going to the NRL and carving out a new long-term career in that sport.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 22, 2020
You’d imagine, if Savea is truly serious about having a go at the NRL, the negotiations could be quite simple on his part because he’s holding all the cards.
It’s really up to New Zealand Rugby to do the negotiating here. When and how Savea transitions toward being available for the All Blacks again come 2023 doesn’t matter nearly as much as making sure it does indeed happen.
The crux of this argument, and something that we should all accept, is that the allure of the All Blacks jersey simply isn’t going to keep someone like Savea on these shores.
We are living in a different landscape, even to what we were the last time such a proposition became a reality, and New Zealand Rugby needs to adjust to this and find a way to pivot towards retaining its best players.
It’s been said so often in conversations about New Zealand Rugby and its best players recently that it feels cliché to repeat but, for the very best, these decisions can’t be blanketed and must be made on a case by case basis.
If this particular case means letting Savea have a stint in the NRL to achieve his ambition, the greater win for New Zealand Rugby from a long-term perspective could be by letting him do just that.
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