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FEATURE The All Blacks overseas selection policy is no longer fit for purpose

The All Blacks overseas selection policy is no longer fit for purpose
1 year ago

New Zealand Rugby has been fiercely protective of its All Blacks eligibility policy. From day one of the professional era, the rules have been clear: only those players contracted to play their club rugby in New Zealand can represent the All Blacks.

It’s a policy that has been constantly reviewed over the last 27 years, but each time the NZR board has considered whether it needs to be amended, the answer has always been no.

The rationale for keeping it so stringent is to protect and promote the quality of domestic rugby. The big fear for NZR is that if it says players can represent the All Blacks while playing their club rugby in Japan, France or the UK, then it will decimate the quality of Super Rugby.

The economics are such, that if the best players in New Zealand could earn almost $2 million a season playing in Japan, and still be All Blacks, they would likely pounce on the opportunity and virtually no one would want to play for the Blues, Chiefs, Hurricanes, Crusaders or Highlanders.

There’s been a secondary element to back up the policy which is that All Blacks coaches have never wanted to keep tabs on players all over the world and gauge their form against those of the local players.

Ever since Dan Carter signed with Perpignan in 2009, All Blacks sabbaticals have become more and more prevalent. (Photo by Getty Images)

And nor have they previously been sure whether the type of rugby played in European club rugby and Japan would prepare New Zealanders to be part of the All Blacks.

But for all that NZR has appeared to be rigid in its thinking about eligibility, there’s been an erosion of the policy by stealth.

This whole idea that you can’t play offshore club rugby and for the All Blacks, is not strictly true.

In 2009, Daniel Carter was sanctioned to take up a six-month contract with Perpignan.

If he hadn’t been badly injured almost as soon as he arrived in France, he would have played in the Top 14 until late May and come back to New Zealand to play in the Tri-Nations in early July.

The system is nowhere near as rigid as NZR likes to say it is and this is arguably why All Blacks coach-elect, Scott Robertson, has already said that he will lobby the board to change eligibility criteria once he takes over next year.

In the same year, dispensation was granted to allow Luke McAlister to play for the All Blacks in the June tests against Italy. McAlister had spent the last two-and-a-half years in Manchester, and although he was returning to take up a contract with the Blues, he was still effectively picked by the All Blacks as a Sale player.

There have been several recent examples of players being picked on the back of playing for Japanese clubs as this is essentially implicit in the sabbatical offers made to those players who qualify for such a perk on account of having played 70 tests.

Sam Whitelock in 2020 and Brodie Retallick and Beauden Barrett in 2021 all played in Japan and then immediately became available for the All Blacks on their return.

And this is the same thing that Ardie Savea will do next year, and Jordie Barrett and Rieko Ioane in 2025.

The system is nowhere near as rigid as NZR likes to say it is and this is arguably why All Blacks coach-elect, Scott Robertson, has already said that he will lobby the board to change eligibility criteria once he takes over next year.

“One thing they [NZR] have said to me is a bit of forward thinking and challenging the norm here,” Robertson told media on the day he confirmed his assistant coaching team.

Incoming All Blacks coach Scott Robertson has suggested he might consider a change in policy from NZR. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

“We’ll have conversations. You’ve got to be a step ahead. If you’re a step behind and then changing rules, that’s when you get caught.

“So they will definitely be getting my opinion and my thoughts. I’ll present to the board and where I think the game is heading potentially. But a lot of that will happen after I get in the role.”

The implication from Robertson is that NZR may be kidding itself that it’s not already allowing players to be picked from overseas and that the time may have come to openly review and amend the policy rather than continuing to operate on the status quo of making exemptions.

And it is hard to believe he is not right – that the policy is no longer fit for purpose and that some of the arguments for maintaining it have been eroded in the last few years.

Whatever Super Rugby once was, it no longer is, and without the South Africans and so many weak Australian sides, it’s not giving New Zealand’s best players the all-round development they need.

It seems the All Blacks would benefit from having one or two of their forwards plying their club trade in the harder environments of the North.

Specifically, Super Rugby is not asking enough of the players physically and at set-piece, and maybe 20 years ago there was an argument that it would be too hard for New Zealanders playing in Europe to adjust to the sort of rugby the All Blacks wanted to play, but that doesn’t hold true now.

If anything, it seems the All Blacks would benefit from having one or two of their forwards plying their club trade in the harder environments of the North.

This idea that the pace of the game up there is too pedestrian to prepare players for the tempo at which the All Blacks want to play belongs to a forgotten age when the Six Nations did indeed trundle about from set-piece to set-piece.

But Ireland and France play at the sort of pace the All Blacks can’t quite match at the moment and they are respectively picking their players out of their own competitions.

When he was quizzed about Robertson’s comments on picking offshore players a few days after he made them, incumbent All Blacks coach Ian Foster said it would be a disaster.

“I think from an All Blacks perspective, if I just looked at it purely selfishly from the All Blacks, it always makes some academic sense. But for New Zealand rugby as a whole, I think it would be a disaster,” Foster told Newstalk ZB’s Jason Pine.

Ian Foster All Blacks
Current All Blacks coach Ian Foster isn’t in favour of changing New Zealand’s selection policy. (Photo by Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)

“I think we’ve got a Super Rugby competition that has fed our national team for many, many years. I don’t think the Super Rugby competition is perfect at the moment — it needs a bit of work. But that is the development path.

“It’s where we actually develop our players, we’re able to work with the franchises in that space. I think we need to make sure we’re selling the product to the public and we’re growing our young players with our older players around them.

“The moment we open up the door, we know the worldwide demand for our players is huge, and I think we’ll lose a lot of our top players and I think it will dilute our domestic competition too much.”

His points were all valid, but there are gaps in his argument. The first is that it’s the rigidity of the eligibility policy as it stands right now which drives much of the value that New Zealand’s best players hold for overseas clubs.

When a big European club buys an All Black, they know that player will never be available to play Test rugby: that they will be available, subject to form and injury, for every game.

Opening eligibility may provide New Zealand with greater ability to protect its talent than the current policy.

In Europe, that of course matters as club competitions overlap the Six Nations and other Test windows. There’s also the cost to the clubs of releasing players for Test action, where they are then injured and ruled out of action on their return.

New Zealanders, unlike South Africans and Australians, can’t be picked by the All Blacks when they are offshore and that puts a premium on their value.

Change the All Blacks eligibility policy and the attraction will lessen and fewer contracts will be offered to New Zealand’s best players and they will be at a lower value.

The strange thing, then, is that opening eligibility may provide New Zealand with greater ability to protect its talent than the current policy.

The second point to acknowledge is that England is in the midst of a financial crisis that is not showing any sign of resolving itself.

The salary cap has been lowered and there is only leeway now to sign one rather than two marquee players. The point being, that England’s leading clubs may well love the idea of getting their hands on world class All Blacks, but they currently don’t have the money to do so.

Bristol Radradra Piutau exit Gallagher Premiership
Premiership clubs like Bristol aren’t necessarily in the same financial position they were when they brought in international talents such as Semi Radradra and Charles Piutau. (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

There is perhaps a third, protection measure that will prevent an exodus of players from New Zealand – most players like it here. They are well looked after medically, their professional development is taken seriously and they have a trade union helping them prepare for life after rugby.

The game has been professional for more than 25 years and players talk and share experiences. The grapevine is full of horror stories about what has happened to New Zealanders overseas and many players understand now that foreign packages don’t often go as far as it may seem once tax implications and currency exchange rates are considered.

And so too can it be argued that the top players are not the ones most at risk. NZR is winning the fight to keep its senior All Blacks, albeit by offering them lucky dip opportunities to play a club season in Japan which can be worth anything up to $2m.

The player group which is vulnerable are those who have enjoyed a few seasons of Super Rugby, without attracting the attention of the All Blacks selectors.

There are players such as Bundee Aki, James Lowe and Jamison Gibson-Park in this category – New Zealanders who only showed their true potential once they had spent a few years at offshore clubs.

Ireland were able to snaffle all three of them, but if the eligibility rules were to be changed, New Zealand would have the ability to pick these sorts of late developers.

When Robertson presents his case to change the existing policy, the board really does need to listen.


JD Kiwi 439 days ago

What a Chicken Licken article. We've lost a few people going off for a golden retirement, a few guys who are never going to be top All Blacks, a blindside who will be 33 in 2027 and Richie Mo'unga who will be missed for now but once again will be 33 in 2027. The sky isn't falling down and blowing up Super Rugby for the sake of one first five makes no sense at all.

Nickers 440 days ago

The bigger issue is fringe ABs players and coaches leaving. There are very few examples of players plying their trade abroad who would be selected for the ABs. What used to make NZ rugby so good was that tier of players who couldn't break into the ABs, but would have walked into most international teams. The talent that was in NZ Super Rugby teams in the 2015/16 was on another level. One by one all those non ABs have been lured away. I don't hold it against them, good on them for making more money, but it's at the heart of the issue. We now have young players learning their trade against Ireland and France, instead of from the old heads in their NPC and SR teams.

Phil 441 days ago

All the previous commenters are dinosaurs

Martin 441 days ago

No doubt moving forward we will need to be more creative in or contracting. But opening up thats just crazy. Going to the North they will play far too much rugby to be fresh for the AB's. This is easy to write about but you're not accountable to the problems that will occur. When AB's players are rested in Super there is an out cry. Imagine if half of them are not playing on our shores, what happens to Super and NPC.

pabst 441 days ago

NZ is going on a dangerous path, I’m sorry to say but mathematically there is no way NZ is not going to have the same issues as ZA, Aussie, or even the Pumas. It is already sad to see Charles Piutau not playing for NZ, and this issue will only get worse by time. Before it worked, now other countries are getting better, and NZ will start loosing more and more, that will put pressure on the whole system and eventually it will collapse. If they are not able to win consistently the prize money won’t be there, neither the sponsors. So eventually it will collapse.

HardYakka 441 days ago

Have to say the arguments put forward by Gregor (and so far by Robertson) are extremely weak in anyone's book.

Some English clubs are struggling ? - well most are not, let alone all the other massive European clubs backed by big financiers who are typically the ones buying All Blacks.

Overseas ABs selection would lower their value? Yes but mainly as they would all be available for poaching and snapped up as fast as you can say IPL auction !

Players like it here? Actually any AB who has had an exception is heading to Japan for a supershort season in a less physical comp on much higher pay.

So yes you're making a pretty comprehensive case for the status quo.

mikejjules 441 days ago

I think NZ should at least open the market to allow nzers to play in the Australian Super teams. The ARU will front up with the odd big contract, as well, saving NZ having to do it. And as an added bonus it would strengthen the Australian teams.

Bruce 441 days ago

Gregor sorry mate but I think you going down a dangerous path. There is no need to change the policy. It is working well. Do you think that Reiko and D Mac would be playing their Rugby in NZ if they knew they would be eligible for the AB's while playing overseas?

On what evidence do you think it is necessary to change? Because Beauden and Richie are overseas after the world cup? Beauden is at the end of his career and quite frankly would not make my AB side at the moment. Richie has never ever been convincing in test footy and is not the answer. Brilliant Super player but doesn't cut it at test level.

No I fully endorse the stance of NZR on this. All the players that you really want for the AB's are staying put. No need to change the policy at all.

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