Earlier this week, New Zealand Rugby (NZR) unveiled the newest team that will bear the All Blacks moniker, the All Blacks XV.
This second-tier side will replace the Junior All Blacks who, despite the confusing nature of their name, were not an age-restricted side but rather a development team for players who were close to but not yet ready for full-scale international football.
The Junior All Blacks last competed in 2009 in the Pacific Nations Cup. Since then, New Zealand’s designated second team (i.e. the side that would capture a player’s eligibility for the country) hasn’t played a single game of rugby.
Instead, the Maori All Blacks took centre stage over the last decade and played matches against a range of international teams, from England to the United States, as well as against various invitational sides such as the New Zealand Barbarians and the British and Irish Lions.
That New Zealand Barbarians side is the closest the country has come to assembling a ‘B’ team – although the All Blacks did play a non-test match against a French selection in the latter half of 2017.
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Still, despite disbanding the Junior All Blacks 10 years ago, NZR never sought to change their designated second side.
Of course, there weren’t exactly many options for the country.
Under the current laws of the game, an U20 representative side cannot be a designated second team. That leaves just the Maori All Blacks and the New Zealand Barbarians as options.
Neither side, however, is a true second team.
The Maori obviously have special eligibility requirements while the Barbarians have played just three times in the last decade (once against the touring Lions and twice against the Maori) and tend to select as much based on inclusivity of provincial representation as they do on forging winning combinations.
That means that the only way for a potential All Black’s eligibility to be captured is playing for the national side or representing New Zealand in sevens.
There’s a whole second tier of players that likely would have been tied to playing for New Zealand were it not for the lack of the Junior All Blacks’ existence.
The likes of Bundee Aki, Jared Payne, Johnny McNicholl and Brad Shields would likely never have been able to suit up for Ireland, Wales and England if the Junior All Blacks had played even a handful of matches post-2009.
NZR has today announced that a new high performance team will undertake a mini tour of Northern Hemisphere venues – which includes a clash against Fiji in Canada.https://t.co/l1gf5HGBGx
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 9, 2020
The Pacific Island nations would be hit even harder, with men like Ben Tameifuna (who played for the NZ Barbarians in 2011), Michael Alaalatoa, Alapati Leuia and Nasi Manu all players who would have had realistic chances of earning selection for the Junior All Blacks – although they would not have necessarily taken up the opportunity.
Other than preventing other nations from selecting players groomed in New Zealand, however, capturing the eligibility of the country’s second-tier of players would do little to help New Zealand as a whole.
Potentially it would marginally impact the number of players that head overseas.
First, it would tip players off that they’re not too far away from selection in the national side which might act as an incentive in of itself.
Then again, men like Shields and Tameifuna likely had plenty of discussions with the selectors throughout their Super Rugby careers – you can only be close to selection so many times before you have to make the call to take your abilities elsewhere.
Second of all – and perhaps it’s a more negative method of keeping players in New Zealand – some leagues have rules in place to limit the number of foreign players. The Top League is a major example where there are restrictions on the number of non-Japanese players that can take part in any one match. This could diminish the possible earnings a player could make in some territories.
The flip side, of course, is that some clubs actually prefer to bring in players who aren’t going to be called up to their national side.
Bristol, for example, know that Charles Piutau’s one and only rugby commitment is his club. As Piutau has been capped for New Zealand and the All Blacks don’t select overseas-based players, the Bears won’t lose the talented outside back during test windows. That naturally significantly increases Piutau’s value to the club.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 9, 2020
Young players will no doubt jump at the chance to represent the new All Blacks XV but it may be a decision they one day look back on with regret if it ends up preventing them from playing international football at a later date.
It’s not just players that are heading offshore, of course. New Zealand is constantly haemorrhaging talented coaches due to the fact that there are simply not enough top opportunities in the country.
Realistically, once a coach has successfully established themselves as an excellent operator at Super Rugby level, the only two options at present are to coach the national side or head elsewhere.
Dave Rennie is now coaching the Wallabies. Before him, it was Joe Schmidt, Vern Cotter and Robbie Deans. At this point in time, it would be more of a surprise if Scott Robertson stayed on New Zealand’s shores than if he emigrated elsewhere.
If New Zealand Rugby use this new team correctly, however, then that could change.
Given the obvious commercial benefits of the new team, it would be a mistake if NZR didn’t establish the head coaching role of All Blacks XV as the second most prestigious role in the country.
Yes, it’s only one extra head coaching position, but it would ensure that a local product is able to get some form of international experience without having to actually leave the country.
It would add a completely new pathway to the mix for grooming top-calibre coaches.
Of course, there’s a chance that NZR will simply fob the coaching role off to the first two coaches that put their hands up and, while that wouldn’t come as the biggest surprise of all time, it would certainly be a missed opportunity.
It’s clear that from a New Zealand point of view, the new development side should only produce benefits.
Instead of cramming an extra tour match into an already packed schedule and loading up a plane with men who are only likely to feature once or twice over the space of five weeks, New Zealand will now be able to send a completely separate team on their own itinerary.
It’s been confirmed that the All Blacks XV’s first match will be against Fiji in Vancouver on Halloween with two more games still to be confirmed.
Given that the All Blacks XV will already be in North America, it wouldn’t come as a major surprise if they teed off against the United States and Canada on the following two weekends (those two American nations will also square off in Vancouver).
Alternatively, they could head to Europe to do battle with the likes of Spain and Russia or head to South America – where the Maori All Black will be taking on Colombia on November 10.
The wider public have been quick to cotton on to the fact that the new side is obviously being used as a commercial opportunity for NZR, but that doesn’t undermine the greater rugby benefits that will come with introducing an additional development side.
The All Blacks XV will of course be used to further promote the All Blacks brand in America – where brand is key, even if there isn’t necessarily a lot of substance behind it.
When the USA national sevens side bested the New Zealand team for the first time ever in 2017, USA news websites all trumpeted that their national side had beaten the All Blacks – which is hard to argue with, given that the New Zealand team was rebranded as the All Blacks Sevens in 2012.
“We need $100 million a year to sustain our national game, to produce and retain the best players in the world and to keep making the community game attractive to young players, but opportunities are more limited in New Zealand and the economic climate also makes it very challenging,” said the NZR CEO at the time, Steve Tew.
“This change allows us to create more reasons for international companies to associate with the All Blacks and New Zealand rugby by convincing them that the brand has real global reach.
“The All Blacks Sevens and Maori All Blacks can do that by flying the All Blacks flag virtually around the world throughout the year. They are both wonderful ambassadors for our game.”
NZR chief Rugby office Nigel Cass also hasn’t shied away from the fact that new All Blacks XV will be a great fundraiser for the union.
“We wouldn’t be doing unless it was financially worthwhile but we wouldn’t be doing it solely for the money,” said Cass. “It does provide some opportunity and interest for players out of Mitre 10 Cup.”
And while the new side may carry the All Blacks moniker, players won’t be named as official All Blacks unless they actually take the field for the first team – as was the case when the Maori All Blacks and All Blacks Sevens came to be.
“The definition of an All Black will not change,” Tew said at the time.
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
“To be capped as an All Black you must take the field in a fifteen aside test match. Becoming an All Black will remain the pinnacle of rugby achievement and the dream of youngsters across the country who lace up their boots each weekend.”
Still, it’s hard to argue that giving an extra 30-odd players the opportunity to come together and represent New Zealand against other international sides won’t help the country continue to develop its talent.
There will no doubt be plenty of up-and-coming players that will miss out on selection in the All Blacks this year – but they will still be given the opportunity to further their careers with this new All Blacks XV selection.
Of course, the Maori All Blacks have undertaken multiple tours over the last decade and the expectation is that this will continue – just maybe not to the same extent.
The Maori All Blacks ‘brand’ is obviously much more pertinent to New Zealanders than to overseas supporters which may mean the Maori play more matches in and around New Zealand while the All Blacks XV are given the opportunity to globe trot.
That’s obviously not going to be the situation in 2020 with both sides heading to the Americas in the latter party of the year, but time will tell how NZR manage their three top men’s teams.
The inception of the new All Blacks XV will give players around New Zealand the opportunity to represent their country that many second-tier players have missed out on in the past and will help develop New Zealand’s game – both on a commercial and a rugby-playing level. On a national level, it’s a win-win for players, fans and administrators alike.
Perhaps the greatest negative consequence, however, will be that we see an even greater number of players have their eligibility captured by New Zealand but never really progress onto becoming long-term All Blacks.
WATCH: Kirsty, Izzy, Stacey, KT and Mils chat through all the match-ups ahead of round three of Super Rugby.
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