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New Zealand Rugby should treat Beauden Barrett like a French footballer

By Hamish Bidwell
(Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

I see France have made the Fifa World Cup final again.

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France boasts a largely developmental professional league, featuring one massive club – backed by the government of Qatar – and not a lot else.

What players France produces, predominantly play in leagues in England, Italy, Spain and Germany.

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France are now vying for back-to-back Fifa World Cup titles, a feat last achieved by Brazil in 1958 and 1962.

They’re not alone, of course. Brazil is another example of a footballing superpower whose elite players are involved in leagues elsewhere.

I could go on.

The point is that, in real professional sport, players go where the money and the competition is. They’re not forced to stay at home by their national bodies.

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Players go with everyone’s blessing and are picked for international duty if they’re good enough.

Maybe they’re playing their club football in England. Maybe it’s Belgium or the Netherlands. Sometimes teams such as Brazil will even select someone out of China.

If you’re an elite player, then the standard of the league you play in should be irrelevant.

All of which brings me to Beauden Barrett and New Zealand Rugby.

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Barrett would like to play overseas and still be eligible to play for the All Blacks. New Zealand Rugby (NZR) have said no.

Now there’s a few strands to the argument, but let’s deal with Super Rugby first.

That competition is a pale imitation of its former self because of NZR. They’ve expanded and contracted, fallen out with South Africa and Australia, rested All Blacks wherever possible and generally undermined the integrity of the competition at every turn.

I read and hear that the floodgates would open if Barrett left. That fellow All Blacks would follow suit and Super Rugby would be irrevocably weakened.

And my counters to that are a) who cares, it’s been happening for years. And b) the French football team.

Rugby in New Zealand is struggling financially because of our Nanny State model. We don’t have professionalism, we have a state-run competition.

Like the old USSR and Cuba, we insist our best rugby players stay home. We’ll have no defectors here, thanks.

Well, NZR needs money and needs deals with Silver Lake and the like because they keep trying to meet the player wage market. Why bother? Why not get Toulon or Toshiba to do the heavy lifting instead?

So what if Super Rugby goes down the gurgler or becomes solely developmental. We’ve already given up on provincial and club rugby, so would anyone actually mourn the passing of Super as well?

We also have this idea that playing in France or Japan is no good for your rugby. Maybe.

But what about treating players like men? What about appealing to their sense of professionalism?

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Do we honestly believe that Barrett – without having NZR micro-manage his life – would get fat and out of form by playing overseas? And so what if he did? We wouldn’t be the ones paying him a million dollars anymore and would be under no obligation to pick him.

Players would get match fees and per diems while in All Blacks camp, but their wages would be someone else’s problem.

That’s professional sport and that’s surely the route we’ll eventually go down.

We can’t keep players here forever and frankly nor should we try.

Imagine if our focus suddenly turned to development, rather than the All Blacks. If we coached from the bottom up and gladly sent our best players to glamorous clubs overseas.

There’d still be money to be made from test rugby, but without a lot of the hassle and compromise that comes from trying to run high-performance professional rugby in a tiny market.

It’s not conceding defeat, it’s not giving up, it’s simply following the long-established and successful example set by football.

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