New Zealand’s player depth is the envy of the world, with a seemingly endless supply of players coming off the production line.
This is no better illustrated by the fact that a second-string All Blacks team, albeit still one with plenty of test match experience, played Japan and beat them by 69-31. Maybe most telling was some of the best performers of the test were debutants like winger George Bridge.
So just how deep does that talent pool run? And how much of it is left untapped?
That’s the question that ex-All Black Murray Mexted is looking to answer, with the country’s first Pro-Player Combine to be held in late November at his International Rugby Academy of New Zealand, also known as IRANZ.
Mexted explained that differences in identification techniques used by each region can lead to players falling through the cracks.
“The various provincial systems and Academies here in New Zealand each have their own approaches to recruiting and developing talent. This is very rarely at the benefit of all players,” he explained.
“There is a surplus of talented players here in New Zealand, capable of playing at a higher level but failing to get their ‘big break’.
Although New Zealand has five successful Super Rugby franchises, the size of each region’s pool of players is different, leading to imbalances in player stocks.
The Blues and the Hurricanes have the biggest population bases to work with, while the Chiefs, Crusaders and Highlanders all have to scour the market to fill needs. The Blues and Hurricanes are geared toward ‘retention’ while the other three are active recruiters.
Even so, the recruitment strategies differ, the Chiefs and Crusaders will invest early in outside talent and develop them in their own system, while the Highlanders exclusively buy the ‘off the shelf’ finished product, most likely players from Mitre 10 Cup coming through other academies or established Super Rugby players.
There are also only so many places to fill in an academy annual intake, with on average 8-10 development contracts handed out per Provincial Union.
Those that get early investment from a Union are far more likely to receive more opportunities moving forward, and no doubt a good development system will make them better players too.
However, those overlooked that might possess equal talent are failing to get the development they need during that pivotal development age of 17-20, with their chances of making professional rugby suffering as a result.
“Their development is suffering; stuck behind other players gaining selection or winning the starting jersey in representative teams,” says Mexted.
The IRANZ Pro-Player Combine is designed to give those players a second chance, to get in front of decision-makers for another look.
“The Pro-Player Combine provides talented players an opportunity to benchmark themselves against the current standards required of professional players – not just physically, but also in the mental, technical and tactical areas – and those specific to their position.”
“Ultimately the Combine will provide players an independent avenue to gain exposure, and receive a qualified assessment of their current ability and capacity to achieve a professional career as a player.”
IRANZ is confident that gems will eventually be uncovered, having seen first-hand unheralded players come through their courses onto higher honours.
Loosehead prop Haereiti Hetet came through earlier this year as a fringe provincial player and then earned a contract with Waikato, featuring in five games for the Mooloo men in their Mitre 10 Cup Championship run.
The combine is open to both New Zealand and Overseas residents but applicants will go through a vetting process.
A collection of New Zealand’s best-unsigned talent could also attract the attention of overseas clubs and scouts if the Combine is successful in gaining momentum.
It is easy to see how demand for such a venture would assist those in the search of young talent. What better place to look than in New Zealand.
The first Pro-Player Combine will run at IRANZ from November 29 to December 1, 2018. For more information visit IRANZ here.
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