Rugby

Sound reasons for no off-shore All Blacks policy

Jim Kayes's latest Rugby in Focus with Canon column argues that New Zealand Rugby's policy of only picking domestic players for the All Blacks ain't perfect - but it darn sure works.

No one likes a crisis quite like a New Zealand rugby fan, and the injury to Damian McKenzie has seen a typically hysterical knee-jerk reaction.

A poll by the NZ Herald found a majority wanted Dan Carter brought in as cover, despite the fact he has had significant neck surgery.

There’s also been a clamour to get the Sunwolves’ Hayden Parker into the All Blacks, though that might have calmed a tad after they were thrashed 52-0 by the Highlanders.

And others have called for a revamp of New Zealand Rugby’s eligibility rules because too many players have moved offshore.

To be picked for the All Blacks you must be playing in a New Zealand team.

It’s a policy that has a lot going for it. It ensures NZR keep control of their players through the central contracting system and, while that might seem draconian, it works.

Some argue it gives NZR and All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen too much control - as witnessed by the resting of leading All Blacks during Super Rugby, so they will be fresh(er) for the World Cup.

It’s certainly not good for Super coaches or the fans to see teams run out without their best players. But it’s not going to stop the Crusaders from winning a third consecutive title and could help the All Blacks win a third consecutive World Cup.

Though as an aside, all the planning in the world didn’t account for what happened in 2011 when injuries to Carter, Colin Slade and Aaron Cruden saw an unfit and overweight Stephen Donald kick the All Blacks to glory.

Forget apples and bananas, it’s akin to comparing a fruit salad.

Stuff columnist Mark Reason, who called in 2013 for Carter to either be dropped or shifted to second five, has written that the eligibility rule is “an insult to individual freedom of choice”.

That’s a bit over the top.

Players have the freedom to play outside New Zealand if they want to. They just have to understand that it comes with a consequence.

Reason also suggests the policy “has done nothing for the game in New Zealand”, which is simply not true.

New Zealand rugby teams are champions at almost every level. That doesn’t happen by chance or with a flawed eligibility policy.

Perhaps Reason has forgotten the power of the English and French clubs and the influence they have on player availability.

All Blacks picked offshore will arrive when their clubs say they can as we’ve seen so often when Northern Hemisphere teams come to New Zealand in two waves to play the June tests.

And those clubs won’t care if the players are in shape to play test rugby - that’s not their problem.

And then there’s the issue of form.

How do you judge players playing in England, France and Japan with those playing in New Zealand? Forget apples and bananas, it’s akin to comparing a fruit salad.

Yes, there are a lot of Kiwis playing rugby in France, Britain, Ireland and Japan, but that is not new.

It is also unlikely to stop - or even ease - despite the top English clubs recording a collective loss of almost $100 million.

Players leave for a variety of reasons, which include a desire to experience life abroad, because they see their All Blacks aspirations blocked or simply over, and because they want to capitalise financially when they can.

Who can blame them? Most go at the right time and most are quickly replaced as the great New Zealand production line keeps delivering.

After the 2015 World Cup, legends of the All Blacks’ jersey Carter, Richie McCaw, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Tony Woodcock and Keven Mealamu either retired or moved offshore.

Such a loss of experience and ability would have crippled most teams, but the All Blacks juggernaut rolled on and they won 13 of their 14 tests in 2016.

Yes, there is a mixture of talent around the Super Rugby franchises and it’s true that only the Crusaders and Hurricanes have genuine test-class first fives.

But that’s not new either. There has always been a mix of talent at different teams with some weak in one area and strong in another.

That’s not a reason to suddenly open the door to picking players from offshore.

The loss of McKenzie is a blow, but it’s not a World Cup-losing blow. There are other fullbacks. Look at how well Jordie Barrett played in the Hurricanes’ win against the Chiefs, and David Havili goes pretty good for the Crusaders too.

And if you’re about to say, “yeah but McKenzie can play first five too”, then just check yourself first.

McKenzie is a superb fullback but a pretty ordinary first five.

And as I explained last week, the depth at first five is only an issue if Beauden Barrett or Richie Mo’unga are injured because they are going to play almost all of the World Cup games anyway.

NZR aren't perfect, but the records of their teams at all levels suggests they get most things right, including insisting that if you want to play for the All Blacks, you have to play in New Zealand.

The views of the author are not necessarily endorsed by Canon. 

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