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The recruitment of Burns is an admission of defeat for the nanny state model

By Hamish Bidwell
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

I’m fully in favour of real professional rugby coming to New Zealand.

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For us to pick our best players from wherever they may live in the world and welcoming elite overseas contractors to our competitions.

New Zealand Rugby (NZR) favours a nanny state model, though, and that is their right. If you want to remain an All Black you must play here.

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The domestic game is sacrosanct – at least in the sense it has to remain a vehicle by which to fairly select our national teams.

So what’s this Freddie Burns thing all about then? How is importing an English first five-eighth – nearer the end of his career than the start – consistent with maintaining Super Rugby’s status as the breeding ground for All Blacks?

Either we have genuinely professional competitions, or we have the nanny state. I don’t see how we can be doing both.

If nothing else, the recruitment of Burns is an admission of defeat. It says our pathways are broken and we need other people’s cast-offs.

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Now, that might be an unfair way to characterise Burns and he might well make a telling impact at the Highlanders. But it doesn’t alter the fact that his signing is entirely inconsistent with our model.

And what of our coaching?

Is hiring recently-retired players to do their coaching apprenticeship at the Super Rugby coalface dumbing our game down. Why can’t we make the players we actually have better, rather than recruit them from elsewhere?

I’m going to go off on a tangent here.

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From Vaea Fifita’s club coach in Wellington, to those who looked after him at provincial, Super and All Blacks level, I’ve asked them all why they couldn’t make a rugby player out of that bloke.

I get that English wasn’t his first language and I understand that maybe he was slow or unable to understand what was required of him, but the man had every physical tool you could wish for in a forward.

And now he’s long gone.

We can wring our hands when seasoned All Blacks decide to cash in overseas at the end of their careers, but the current crisis is in the tier that Fifita occupied. It’s the absence of the good provincial and Super players – who go on to accumulate a few All Blacks caps – that is really hurting our game.

But Fifita is also emblematic of something else.

It’s the athlete who relies on talent to succeed and then has nothing else to fall back on when that’s not sufficient.

Our game is full of them, for a variety of reasons.

The player pool doesn’t just get shallow at secondary schools’ level now. Kids are leaving the game at intermediate, because they simply aren’t robust enough to play safely.

The big kid and the fast kid remain and then progress from 1st XVs and into Super Rugby squads.

At no point do we adequately appear to coach them, because the same flaws in their game persist even up to All Blacks level.

The Burns signing is an admission of failure, from what I can see. It says we don’t have the players or the coaches to sustain our own – alleged – professional competition.

We have neglected the bottom and middle parts of the pyramid to the extent that we don’t have the ability, intellect or work ethic to prosper in the high-performance part of the game.

Which is fine, if you’re running a professional league. You just sign someone from France or Ireland or wherever and you plug the hole.

Only we’re not doing that in New Zealand. And yet Burns is coming to save everyone’s blushes, just the same.

It’s laughable.

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