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FEATURE Is New Zealand in danger of giving trade secrets to main rivals?

Is New Zealand in danger of giving trade secrets to main rivals?
1 month ago

While most of the established rugby world would consider their embattled finances and ailing balance sheets to be their most significant threat, in New Zealand, it is the continual loss of coaching intellectual property that is starting to feel like the iceberg which may rip a hole in the hull.

It’s not just that New Zealand is losing swathes of intellectual property every year – it is the fact so much of it is easily and readily being taken directly to competitors.

Trade secrets are flying out the door and there is reason to believe that good coaches with heavy recent involvement at the highest levels of the game in New Zealand are going to play an integral role in hurting the All Blacks this year.

In what can only be described as a random quirk of fate, former All Black Tony Brown has found himself in the most unexpected of positions.

Tony Brown
Tony Brown is back in New Zealand rugby on a short-term basis before he joins up with South Africa (Photo Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Two weeks ago he was unveiled as part of the new Springboks coaching team for 2024. Recognised as one of the game’s smartest tactical minds, with a proven track record of building innovative, high-tempo, high-skill attack patterns, Brown, who has spent the last eight years with Japan, was snapped up by the Boks.

They want to utilise his ability to enable teams to create and exploit space – which is the same reason why in 2019, both Ian Foster and Scott Robertson wanted him in their respective coaching teams when they were applying for the All Blacks job.

In the end, Japan doubled Brown’s money to stay and so when he made himself open to offers after last year’s World Cup, South Africa pounced and could hardly believe their luck that they were able to get him.

Former Springboks captain Jean de Villiers, who had played with Brown when the former All Black had a late-career stint at the Stormers in 2008, said: “Tony started in the mid-90s playing Super Rugby and international rugby, went all the way through and finished at about 2010.

“Then he went straight into coaching…coached in Japan, coached the Highlanders, coached throughout the world. So now he’s got 35 years of IP and experience at the highest level of rugby that he can fall back on and now bring that to the Boks.”

As much as there is major reward for the Blues, there is significant risk to the All Blacks that they are letting a wolf too near the sheep and come August and September this year… it may be that the real beneficiary of Brown’s stint in Auckland is the Springboks.

If seeing Brown snaffled by the arch enemy was a little hard for New Zealanders to take, the position has become yet more curious as Brown has been parachuted into the Blues Super Rugby team as an emergency replacement for assistant coach Jason O’Halloran, who is on indefinite medical leave.

It’s a stunning acquisition for the Blues in the most unfortunate of circumstances and having Brown on board could see the club finally unleash the full potential of a backline that contains outrageous talents such as Stephen Perofeta, Rieko Ioane, Caleb Clarke and Mark Tele’a.

To see this young quartet blossom will be the plus side of Brown being with the Blues, but so too will there be a cost to him spending time in Auckland.

He’s going to see for himself, first-hand, how these four operate. He’s going to build in-depth understanding of their strengths and weaknesses and get to know what defaults come into their game when they are under pressure, what they might not be good at anticipating and what sort of attacking ploys they least enjoy facing.

Caleb Clarke
Brown could help unlock the potential of a Blues backline featuring talents like Caleb Clarke (Photo Phil Walter/Getty Images)

As much as there is major reward for the Blues, there is significant risk to the All Blacks that they are letting a wolf too near the sheep and come August and September this year when the Rugby Championship is in Johannesburg and Cape Town, it may be that the real beneficiary of Brown’s stint in Auckland is the Springboks.

The last six years or so have seen the All Blacks and Springboks play five tests that were decided by just one point, while there have also been two draws.

The margins between them are tiny and the intelligence that Brown will pick up during Super Rugby could be enough to manufacture the half opportunity that ends up with the Springboks winning.

Equally, the All Blacks are facing a new threat now that Joe Schmidt has taken over as head coach of the Wallabies. Schmidt joined the All Blacks last year as an assistant coach, only leaving the team after the World Cup and he too has intimate knowledge of the players in black his side will likely face this year.

It’s undeniably dangerous for New Zealand to have Brown and Schmidt locked in by the Springboks and Wallabies and it perhaps raises the question of whether the time has come for New Zealand Rugby to consider ways in which it can better protect its intellectual property.

And that’s the danger for the All Blacks: it’s not such a fear for them that Schmidt and Brown will be lifting specific plays and ideas and transposing Kiwi ideas into their new teams – it’s that they both know so much about individual New Zealand players.

There’s undeniable value to the Wallabies in him knowing deep, inaccessible secrets about key All Blacks and anyone who doubts that should think about what value New Zealand took from Schmidt’s knowledge of the Irish players at last year’s World Cup when the two sides met in the quarter-final.

It’s undeniably dangerous for New Zealand to have Brown and Schmidt locked in by the Springboks and Wallabies and it perhaps raises the question of whether the time has come for New Zealand Rugby to consider ways in which it can better protect its intellectual property.

Schmidt’s appointment has been characterised by NZR as an opportunity to strengthen its key strategic partner.

Joe Schmidt
Schmidt’s knowledge from his time as an All Blacks assistant coach could assist Australia (Photo Patrick Khachfe/Getty Images)

The Wallabies are a mess, and they need to be competitive and credible for the Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship to have greater meaning and enable NZR to better fulfil its commercial ambitions for both.

Having Schmidt with the Wallabies is a means to stabilise a weak team and strengthen Southern Hemisphere rugby by enabling Australia to find some cohesion and confidence.

Similarly, NZR allowed Robbie Deans to remain with the Crusaders in 2008 when he was also the Wallabies coach; and in 2012 and 2013 Graham Henry was able to be technical director for both the Blues and Argentina.

These dual roles were sanctioned – as was Brown’s involvement with the Highlanders in various guises between 2016 and 2022 when he was also Japan’s assistant – on the basis New Zealand has to do its bit to grow the game and help others become more competitive for the greater good.

In 2013, former NZR chief executive Steve Tew talked about this challenge of helping others but not so much that it becomes detrimental to the All Blacks.

“It is a balancing act because we do want to help some nations develop and grow,” he said.

“But equally we live in an open, global rugby economy and our intellectual property, particularly among the coaches and players, is spread out all over the world. There is nothing we can do about that other than once a coach or player signs a contract to leave New Zealand, to restrict their access to what we have.

The time is coming when New Zealand will have to ask whether it wants to help the rest of the world or save itself.

“The reality is IP is going to be pretty stale pretty quickly anyway but there are some sensitivities that we have to manage as best we can. But frankly, we are best trying to control what we can, which is growing our own physical and technical abilities and staying ahead of everyone else.”

And maybe that last statement is the issue that will force New Zealand to rethink whether it has the balance right.

The All Blacks have not been the world’s number one team since early 2019 – not for any length of time the way they were between 2009 and 2018.

Their win ratio in the last four years is 70 per cent, compared with the 90 per cent it sat at between 2012 and 2019. They have racked up historic first losses on home soil to Argentina and Ireland and haven’t won the World Cup since 2015.

Not only have Ireland surpassed them as the world’s most consistent team, but the Springboks have potentially also become the team with the greater World Cup legacy and renowned ability to innovate on the big occasions.

The time is coming when New Zealand will have to ask whether it wants to help the rest of the world or save itself.

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