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FEATURE Robertson plays a smart hand on All Blacks eligibility issue

Robertson plays a smart hand on All Blacks eligibility issue
5 months ago

Scott Robertson was given the All Blacks head coaching role on the basis he’s a proven winner.

In seven seasons with the Crusaders, he won seven Super Rugby titles – a record which unequivocally suggests Robertson is a man who knows how to plan, how to strategise and how to stay in the fight.

These are the qualities that drew New Zealand Rugby to him in early 2023 when they announced he’d be taking over from Ian Foster after the World Cup.

It was an unprecedented move by NZR to have the next coach lined up while the incumbent still had six months of his contract to run, but it signalled how worried the national body was about losing Robertson to an international rival.

Scott Robertson
Scott Robertson has been keen to get the media and public onside in his early weeks in the job (Photo Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

And it signalled how much faith NZR has in Robertson. It is 20 years since Graham Henry was appointed All Blacks head coach, before being replaced in 2012 by his assistant Steve Hansen, who in turn was replaced by his assistant, Foster in 2019.

Two decades of promoting within worked well for the All Blacks but there is no doubt that by mid-way through 2022, there was an overwhelming sense that NZR’s board and executive team were convinced they needed a new, enterprising figure to set the national team on a new path.

They wanted to break free from the continuity cycle and bring in someone who would not only deliver an on-field re-brand, but an off-field one, too – a more modern and accessible team that Gen Z could fall in love with.

In his two months in the role so far, Robertson has already shown that things are going to be different with him in charge.

Robertson is the man who has been installed to be that point of difference – to bring fresh-thinking and alternative ideas to the All Blacks and better connect them with a fan base that at times in the last two decades has felt a little shunned by their favourite team.

Having given him the job on a ticket to modernise the All Blacks and better equip them to thrive in the digital age, NZR is now discovering that Robertson intends to stay true to his brief.

In his two months in the role so far, Robertson has already shown that things are going to be different with him in charge.

There has been a significant clear-out of personnel with only two people – forwards coach Jason Ryan and conditioning coach Nic Gill – surviving from the previous regime.

Ceri Evans
Sports psychologist Ceri Evans (centre) has been brought back into the All Blacks set-up by Robertson (Photo Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

New faces are everywhere in the Robertson set-up, with the arrival of world-renowned sports psychologist Ceri Evans of particular interest as the former international footballer had a huge impact on both Richie McCaw and Dan Carter.

Robertson has also shown a willingness to be open and accessible to the media, fronting an informal breakfast in December before holding a surprise press conference in Auckland a month later when the All Blacks were conducting their usual off-season fitness testing.

Typically, the media aren’t told about these off-season sessions and nor has the coach historically fronted, but Robertson has come into the role with a desire to keep the media close and the public connected and was happy to answer questions about all sorts of things despite the fact he won’t be picking his first squad for another six months.

The unwritten rule has been that All Blacks coaches will acknowledge the importance of keeping players in New Zealand to protect the strength of the domestic game.

There was one question in particular he was happy to answer, which was on the perennial issue of NZR’s All Blacks eligibility policy, which prevents players based overseas from being selected.

This is a hot topic in New Zealand and one that Robertson seems determined to keep in the public agenda for as long as it takes to get some kind of concession from his employer.

His predecessors have all chosen to toe the party line on this issue and not publicly challenge it. The unwritten rule has been that All Blacks coaches will acknowledge the importance of keeping players in New Zealand to protect the strength of the domestic game.

But Robertson broke with convention in April last year when he told the media that he would present the board with a plan to change the policy.

Richie Mo'unga
Richie Mo’unga, now playing for Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo in Japan, is currently unable to play for New Zealand (Photo Koki Nagahama/Getty Images)

And in Auckland last week, he doubled down when he said: “What I presented to the board, the CEOs of Super Rugby, the PUs [provincial unions], Heartland, I explained about keeping an open mind to where we are in that space, that’s what I’ve asked for,” Robertson said.

“I’ve not asked for ‘can I please have someone come and play for us?’ but keep an open mind where the game is at the moment. It’s moving quite quickly, as we know, there is a lot of on and off-field, players and decisions and contracting, and I want to be a step ahead of that. Decipher that.”

Decipher that indeed because it’s not clear whether Robertson is campaigning for specific change or applying firm but gentle pressure through the media to keep the topic in the public domain or confirming that he’s simply of the view that while he supports the policy as it stands, he feels that NZR need to be flexible and willing to react if market conditions change.

The suspicion at this stage is that Robertson wants the media to keep asking the question and for the policy to continue to be debated and discussed as fervently as it currently is.

If NZR’s executive and governance team didn’t appreciate that their new coach would be asking them to embrace new thinking as much as the players, they do now.

The reason he may be doing this is to create a strong argument for change should the All Blacks struggle to produce results in 2024, having lost access to frontline talent such as Richie Mo’unga, Shannon Frizell and Leicester Fainga’anuku, as well as veterans such as Aaron Smith, Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock.

The All Blacks are facing a brutal season where they will play England three times, South Africa twice as well as facing France and Ireland. If they lose a handful of tests, Robertson will be able to push back and say that it is perhaps nonsensical for New Zealand’s financial ecosystem to be so dependent on the national team being successful and yet deny them access to key players.

It’s a sign of how smartly Robertson operates that he’s building a narrative now that may come to help him later in the year. If NZR’s executive and governance team didn’t appreciate that their new coach would be asking them to embrace new thinking as much as the players, they do now.

NZR wanted an agent of change, a radical operator with the power to engage a new audience, but did they fully understand what that would mean?

Did they know that Robertson would consider that nothing is off the table and that he will campaign to change everything and anything he doesn’t think will help the All Blacks fulfil their brief of being a winning and much-loved team?

Leicester Fainga'anuku
Wing Leicester Fainga’anuku, who impressed at the RWC and is now at Toulon, is also off limits to the All Blacks (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

The question that seems unlikely to go away this year is for how long can NZR continue to stick rigidly to its belief that the current eligibility system is the right one?

It’s a question being asked in England, too, as more and more star players defect to the greater riches on offer in French club rugby. The sense is growing that both NZR and the RFU have their fingers in the metaphoric dyke trying to stop the flow of player movement through stringent eligibility policies for their national teams.

However well the eligibility policy has served New Zealand in the past, times have changed, and Robertson may have an inkling that private equity investor Silver Lake could become an ally in his quest to soften the policy.

The US fund manager pumped another $62.5m into the All Blacks just before Christmas and is under pressure to generate a better return, having not produced the transitional incomes it forecast it would when it came on board in 2022.

If the All Blacks can’t maintain their amazing long-term win record, they have little hope of achieving their commercial targets and Silver Lake is most likely going to side with Robertson in pushing for some kind of change to the eligibility situation.

Robertson has only ever known success as a professional coach and it seems that on this vexed issue of player eligibility, he will ultimately secure the victory he craves.


Graham 157 days ago

I agree 100% with Scott Robertson. Richie Mo’unga is a brilliant no 10 as showed with 7 time champion Crusaders and All Blacks. He had to put up with the ridiculous dual play maker role with Barrett , started by Hansen and doggedly carried on by Foster. Set him free.

Michael 161 days ago

Letting nzers into the aussie super teams is a no brainer. Gives more of our players exposure to a higher level while helping out Australia.
Selecting from further abroad is obviously more complicated but it will lower the value of the overseas offers available while raising even more the profile of the ABs with stars playing in Europe and Japan.

Chris 161 days ago

So being manipulative is being heralded as strategic genius 🙄

David 161 days ago

Two former Chiefs have made World Cup 2023 team if the tournament picks by many experts - Bundee Aki and James Lowe. Both were not considered good enough for the ABs; instead the selectors opted for Bridge and Havilli etc. Maybe identification of talent in NZ is more important than wanting ABs to be selected from overseas. Mounga, for example, has never set the world alight against top opposition so to want him to return seems a retrograde step. Surely a world class coaching team can identify and develop talent from a pool so deep most international coaches would kill for?

David 161 days ago

“Robertson has only ever known success ….”
Yes, if you only count his stints in Chch. But Razor followed Dave Rennie coaching the NZU20s after Dave's three world titles and the team's brilliant rugby. Razor's first year was a failure, being the NZ first coach to not make the finals, while his team played inferior quality rugby.
There is no doubt that he has full support of the NZR, the rugby press and an almost evangelical following from some of the rugby public. A far cry from the support Foster received. Yet the bar is set at winning the W Cup final to eclipse Foster’s squad W Cup performance! Seems like he already has it in the bag, according to some?

Mzilikazi 161 days ago

A very interesting article, and one which I would suspect is right on the money. Razor Robinson is one smart operator, and I have no doubt he is not just a ruthless man dealing with the teams he coaches, but also anyone or any group that gets in the way of his achieving his aims.

Jonathan Gil 162 days ago

Rather puzzled by some of the responses here. Robertson hasn’t irresponsibly advocated for the South African scenario, where the bulk of the team is now selected from the ranks of overseas-based players. He has simply raised the question of relaxing the current restrictive eligibility rules. How to do that without damaging the domestic NZ competitions is a question well worth considering. And the answer, as some pundits have already suggested, might be to implement some version of the old Giteau rule, where (say) one back and one forward can be selected from overseas provided they have already played 40 or more tests. That hardly seems like it would open the gates to Armageddon.

Jon 162 days ago

There was one question in particular he was happy to answer, which was on the perennial issue of NZR’s All Blacks eligibility policy, which prevents players based overseas from being selected.
Again, the journo lies about the press conference to keep this topic going? When the AB coach ignores your question on the topic, surely anyone can see it is was the one question he was not interested in gaining talking minutes on?
Which means you can flip this article on its head, from ‘what’s he trying to achieve’, to “whats he trying to hide?” now?

I wonder if it’s as simple as he was told they won’t be having a bar of his idea? Or could it be more complicated that they don’t want to reduce new contract wages by alerting to change in policy before this cycle finishes? Club’s would be sure to cringe when they found out there star player could be missing for chunks of the season (it might only be the French that player through the Nov window).

If the angle of this article can be believed, and it was the above preceding suggestion that his opinion wasn’t seemed worthy on the matter, surely he would be leaking some of his key reasons for us to debate and influence NZR with?

He was surprisingly mute on the topic from what I was expecting to come out of him this year. I’m afraid now we are going to have to wait on whatever calamity he is worried about, coming to fruition before we find out more. Unless it was just that last years talk was about getting public pressure in before he had that chat at the end of the year, once he took over. It would appear we failed if that was the point of all this.

Forward pass 162 days ago

It is starting to look like Razor isnt the right choice even before a team has been selected. This article says Razor was selected as coach to modernise NZ rugby. NO HE WASNT. He was hired as the coach. Is he a worse coach than every one of his predecessors? Cant he do the job without overseas selection? Time he shut up or resign. I really wanted him as the coach but he is making a complete fool of himself and is telling every player in NZ they arnt good enough for him.

Mike 162 days ago

If NZR falls into line with Robertson's thinking and both are focused on the four year cycle to win the Webb Ellis trophy by all means open the selection criteria to include overseas players - to the detriment of super rugby and the NPC competitions.

South Africa are a prime example of this mentality with whole teams playing off shore. Yes, they won the world cup but what has their domestic game sacrificed to achieve this.

If we are OK to have weak All Black squads between World Cups because of players’ obligations to their overseas masters, by all means allow our talent to fly to the Pound, Euro and Yen.

I for one want a strong domestic competition with our best players minus those who negotiate sabbaticals in to their contracts.

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