Gregor Paul: Scouts busy while eyes on NZ

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The story about a big island in the Pacific stealing rugby players from smaller islands has always lacked a fundamental grounding in truth - until now.

There is this big island called Australia and this little island (made up of two islands actually) called New Zealand and the former nicks a surprising number of the latter's best rugby players.

It's a concern made worse by the fact New Zealand is continually accused of poaching from Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. All this finger pointing has been a handy distraction for Australia - everyone is looking the other way while they do their dirty work.

In this scramble for players, Australia is the most active in persuading talented young men to leave their homeland.

They have the fewest teams of the Sanzar partners and yet they employ, by far, the highest number of players not born on their shores.

Some of that migration is driven by factors way bigger than rugby. Australia is a land of economic opportunity, many people in the Pacific and beyond head there in search of a better life.

Of the 18 New Zealand-born players contracted to Australian Super 14 teams, some will have washed up as a consequence of a family move - their rugby ability having no bearing on the decision to migrate.

It would be most unwise, however, to believe this growing Kiwi content is purely driven by economic and lifestyle opportunity.

It's clear to those running the game in New Zealand that they are increasingly under threat from aggressive Australian poaching.

The creation of the Western Force in 2006 has given Australia a bigger headache than many realise. When Super 12 expansion was being proposed, the Australian Rugby Union maintained they could lure home many of their eligible players based overseas.

The power of the pound and the euro has proven too much to overcome and Australian sides attack each other without mercy. When the merry-go-round stops and they see the gaps in their playing ranks, it's over to New Zealand to see what they can grab.

And nor is it just rugby that has New Zealand and in particular, Auckland, on its radar. Rugby league scouts are just as keen. Whenever New Zealand schools play their Australian counterparts, NRL scouts will be there.

It's a fraught business keeping the best players - the number of potential professionals is greater than the contracts available. A youngster playing club rugby in Sydney can earn more than he would in Air New Zealand Cup.

The talent depth can be daunting. It is not unknown for the fourth-best schoolboy openside in New Zealand to be ranked top in Queensland.

Auckland Rugby's high performance manager Mike Wallace says pressure comes from many places. This included extended family members based in Australia, the NRL and agents. As was seen last year, Australia's relaxed eligibility rules meant pressure directly from the Reds, Waratahs, Brumbies and Force.

"Migration is taking a number of families from New Zealand, but we have also been aware of the influence of rugby league."

Wallace and his fellow high performance managers need support because it won't be long before the likes of Quade Cooper, Francis Fainifo and Brando Va'aulu start regularly hurting New Zealand's Super 14 sides.

- Herald on Sunday

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