Why players keep leaving: Blues struggling to make All Blacks - and having shorter international careers
Four new caps were named in the first All Blacks squad of the year announced earlier this week.
Chiefs loosie Luke Jacobson, Highlanders first five Josh Ioane and Crusaders backs Braydon Ennor and Sevu Reece have all received their first call ups to the national side. Front rowers Atu Moli (Chiefs) and Asafo Aumua (Hurricanes), who have been selected before but never taken the field in a test match, are also included in the squad.
That probably shouldn’t be a huge surprise, given that the Blues once again finished bottom of the New Zealand conference.
The bigger concern for the country’s biggest franchise is that of the newly selected players, two were actually schooled in Auckland before heading elsewhere for their professional rugby.
Few Aucklanders sticking around for Super Rugby
Braydon Ennor captained the Saint Kentigern 1st XV before heading south for university and, eventually, provincial rugby. Josh Ioane earned his stripes at King’s College but now runs out for Otago.
These two young players contribute to an already large contingent of Auckland-schooled All Blacks that have since departed the region for greater opportunities elsewhere.
In fact, of the 39 All Blacks selected in the squad, over a quarter ran out for Auckland schools.
Alongside Ennor and Ioane, Angus Ta’avao, Vaea Fifita, Jack Goodhue, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Patrick Tuipulotu, Dalton Papalii, Sonny Bill Williams and Rieko Ioane all spent their final year of college in Auckland. Only the latter four represented the Blues in this year’s Super Rugby competition whilst the others were spread amongst the other franchises.
Contrast that with the Crusaders, who have been the main benefactor of player movements since graduation and, arguably, fastidious player recruitment. Only seven of the most recently selected All Blacks represented Canterbury or Tasman at a high school level, yet no less than 11 of the current squad turned out for the Crusaders in 2018.
Crusaders reeling in the youth
Not one of Codie Taylor, Sam Whitelock, Kieran Read, Jack Goodhue, George Bridge, Ennor or Reece played for high schools that are caught under the Crusaders catchment area. Only Moli, Anton Lienert-Brown and Brodie Retallick have abandoned the Crusaders juggernaut in favour of other franchises (all three at the Chiefs).
Whilst there are obviously numerous non-rugby justifications for moving provinces, it would be a huge mistake to write off these numbers as completely unrelated to the pull of the Crusaders and the contrasting push of the Blues.
Long-term success not found at the Blues
The fact of the matter is that an astronomically higher number of long-term All Blacks come from the Crusaders than they do the Blues.
When considering only players that aren’t still in the formative years of their careers, almost 50% more All Blacks have come from the Crusaders than they have the Blues since 2008. Further, the Crusaders players are earning more than three times as many caps as the Blues players, on average.
The Blues have also had a number of players earn caps that have then been later discarded from the All Blacks, whilst the Crusaders players tend to hang around a lot longer. Remember the likes of Rudi Wulf, Benson Stanley, Francis Saili, Frank Halai and George Moala? They all managed fewer than five caps for New Zealand. In the past ten years, only three of the Crusaders newly minted All Blacks have managed earned five or fewer caps – which is all the more impressive when you consider the sheer number they’ve produced.
Of course, the Crusaders have historically been New Zealand’s top team – but the numbers don’t look significantly brighter for the Blues even when comparing them to the other three franchises. Only the Highlanders have elevated fewer players to the national side over the past ten years – but their All Blacks tend to stick around a lot longer. Jarrad Hoeata and Jamie Mackintosh both rose above their station, but the Highlanders’ other national representatives have all been very able performers.
The Crusaders have an excellent recruitment system in place. Yes, players want to go to the franchise already because of how successful they’ve been (both on and off the field), but that doesn’t mean the franchises’ scouts won’t be working tirelessly to ensure that they’ve got the best cattle coming into the region on a regular basis. It seems to be the opposite story at the Blues, who both lose out on some of their own home-grown talent, and fail to promote the players that they do retain.
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