Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Talent drain causing few worries

Lessons learnt from the 2007 exodus are bearing fruit, writes Gregor Paul

Prop Carl Hayman moved to Europe after the 2007 World Cup. Photo / NZPA
Prop Carl Hayman moved to Europe after the 2007 World Cup. Photo / NZPA

The player drain is intensifying, swirling established All Blacks down the pipeline to overseas destinations - and yet there is an eerie calm in New Zealand rugby.

A third of the 2011 World Cup squad has left (or is leaving) New Zealand since that fateful Eden Park night 14 months ago. Some decent occasional international players are also packing their bags, with a few more set to join them ... and still no obvious panic.

If anything, excitement levels about the state of the national game are rising - vastly different to how things were at the same stage of the last World Cup cycle. By early 2009, the picture was remarkably similar: 10 of the 30-man 2007 World Cup squad had decided to move on.

But there was panic back then. New Zealand rugby was in bad shape. The exodus had taken many of the best players and the New Zealand Rugby Union offered those it deemed essential serious pay increases. They locked in a core group but still, to fill the rest of the places, the All Blacks had to pick from an experienced and horribly under-prepared emerging tier.

It was the year they lost their opening game to France and three times to South Africa. It was the year they had no choice but to pick players such as Tanerau Latimer, George Whitelock, Isaac Ross, Lelia Masaga and Stephen Donald - men who were never quite true test class. It was the year they had to persevere with a injury-reduced Rodney So'oialo.

Now, four years on with the tug of offshore markets just as fierce, there is intense competition for national places - and, other than some concern around the midfield and hooker beyond the veteran incumbents, little anxiety.

Has New Zealand simply been fortunate that a host of quality potential world class props and halfbacks have emerged at the same time?

There is a little luck in the development patterns but this player drain is being so easily weathered because the last one forced a major improvement in talent identification.

As the NZRU's head of high performance, Don Tricker, explains: "You have to work backwards. The purpose of the high performance programme is to develop players the All Black coaches want to select - as opposed to them being left with players they have to select.

"We work pretty closely with the All Black coaches looking at the type of players they want. We link into the under-20s programme, which we link into the New Zealand Secondary Schools programme."

There has also been the improvements made in spotting the talent in the first place.

Gone are the days of seeing the biggest, fastest and most powerful at an early age and clinging to that player. The emphasis has shifted beyond the immediate, with the new philosophy all about trying to forecast where a player in his mid-to-late teens might be in six to seven years. Once individuals come on to the elite radar, they are given personalised development programmes that contain a series of generic and specific skill development requirements.

Sam Cane, Brodie Retallick, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Beauden Barrett, Brad Shields, Steve Luatua and Ben Tameifuna are all products of the improved system. They shifted from first XV, to ITM Cup, to Super Rugby and, in some cases, to the All Blacks in remarkably short order.

This group is a ringing endorsement that New Zealand rugby is in good health. Of those 10 World Cup-winning All Blacks, maybe only Richard Kahui is a genuine loss. Even Jerome Kaino may have found the competition from Luatua and Brad Shields intense, had he stayed.

Tricker says that while the system has improved from four years ago, it is not complete.

There are, after all, some doubts about the next generation of hookers but this was identified six years ago and had been addressed.

"We focus on where we are short."

The expectation is that those emerging rakes will start to make their presence felt in Super Rugby this year and next. If not, the All Blacks will indeed have a problem - but one, on current evidence, they will be confident of solving.

The departed

2007 World Cup squad that had left (or announced they were leaving) by March 2009:

• Doug Howlett
• Aaron Mauger
• Luke McAlister
• Anton Oliver
• Keith Robinson
• Chris Jack
• Carl Hayman
• Nick Evans
• Jerry Collins
• Chris Masoe

2011 World Cup squad that have left (or announced they are leaving):

• John Afoa
• Brad Thorn
• Mils Muliaina
• Sonny Bill Williams
• Jerome Kaino
• Richard Kahui
• Jimmy Cowan
• Adam Thomson
• Isaia Toeava
• Zac Guildford *

(* Hasn't left but his future remains in limbo as he battles alcohol problems.)

- Herald on Sunday

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