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The NRL and AFL have no problem banking mega-deals, why does NZR need to cry poor to the Northern Unions?

By Hamish Bidwell
The 2020 New Zealand Super Rugby jerseys. (Photo by

The National Rugby League are about to seal a new broadcast deal worth $2.5 billion New Zealand dollars.

Their AFL cousins signed a $2.7 billion (NZ) deal in 2017, which they’re in negotiations to extend and increase.

People in other parts of the world watch both codes, but hardly in massive numbers. Never mind because Australian television networks are still happy to pay a fortune for the product.

Rugby in Australasia’s not in such rude health, though. In fact, global pandemic or not, New Zealand Rugby’s response to financial hardship has been to plead long and loud for Northern Hemisphere sides to bail them out.

You can’t make a buck from trans-Tasman competitions, we’re told, leaving NZR open to offers from promoters, private equity firms and more prosperous unions the world over. The All Blacks, it seems, are now available to the highest bidder.

It’s been interesting, then, to see a few old stagers start trickling back the other way.

Aaron Cruden had already forsaken France for FMG Stadium and now Sam Whitelock, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Ben Smith and Julian Savea have done similar.

Whitelock has reunited with the Crusaders, after his Japanese sabbatical was cut short, while Milner-Skudder has signed for the Highlanders. Plenty of folk hoped Smith would follow suit and now Savea’s expressed interest in a Hurricanes’ swansong.

The best rugby days of all five men might be behind them, but that hasn’t stopped people wanting to watch them play. Heck, Cruden cobbled together a couple of useful games for the Chiefs and some even wanted him selected in the All Blacks.

The best NRL players don’t disappear to play overseas, nor those from the AFL. Where would they go, for starters? It’s not as if either game is a global one.

But the bottom line is they don’t need to go. They’re not only well paid here, but playing in the best club competitions their code can offer.

Australia occasionally play Ireland in a hybrid version of AFL and Gaelic football while, until the emergence of Tonga as a potent force, international rugby league was an afterthought.

The point being, the AFL and NRL are domestic competitions that rate well and pay well, in large part because their best players are always on display. They’re not continually rested or on restricted minutes or saving themselves for international footy.

It’s still hard to fathom, particularly with the restrictions on international travel that should persist for some time, that NZR would decide global tournaments are the way out of a financial hole.

Money is a big reason why good rugby players leave New Zealand. Diminishing All Blacks prospects is another.

What’s often overlooked is travel. Guys tire of going to Argentina and South Africa to play test and Super footy. They’re fed up with the end-of-year trip to Europe.

They want to settle in the one spot and be with their families and, if there is travel, then it’s just between, say, Britain and France.

Even then, that lifestyle’s not for everyone. The quieter climes of home start to appeal again, if not the Super Rugby that comes with it.

The day surely has to come when the rugby franchises in New Zealand and Australia go down the membership or private ownership route that NRL and AFL clubs have. We say we have professional rugby here, but the reality is it’s more like social welfare given the national body foots the bill.

Europe and Japan are heavily populated with New Zealand and Australian rugby players who would still be of use here. Not all would be All Blacks or Wallabies, but they’d sure add some depth and class and box-office appeal to our franchise football.

Sam Whitelock, Ben Smith, Aaron Cruden, Julian Savea and Nehe Milner-Skudder don’t represent the future of All Blacks rugby. But they, and their ilk, do offer a glimpse of how good our domestic teams could be.

Maybe even good to merit the kind of multi-billion dollar broadcast deals other football codes around here can muster. 



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