Time for NZ Rugby to introduce a draft

By Dylan Cleaver

A draft for the Kiwi Super Rugby franchises makes so much sense, it probably will never happen, but it really should. Dylan Cleaver outlines why.
Rieko Ioane would have been a sought-after player in a New Zealand rugby draft. Photo / Getty Images
Rieko Ioane would have been a sought-after player in a New Zealand rugby draft. Photo / Getty Images

It is time our national sport introduced a draft. If the men* who run New Zealand Rugby and the Players' Association negotiation team were nimble enough thinkers, they'd put the imminent latest incarnation of the collective agreement into abeyance and work in a skeleton proposal for a draft.

But they're not, and it doesn't directly relate to wringing more dollars out of the All Black brand, so they won't.

But as they look to America to extend their profile, they should look at some of the things that have turned sports there into money-making machines (and, yes, they have economies of scale New Zealand can never match).

The NFL and NBA made-for-TV draft extravaganzas are over the top and, at times, a little bit icky, but they've become such a part of their respective calendars that they have become industries in themselves.

Read any American sports website or watch any of those ESPN panel shows in the lead-up to those drafts, and it is wall-to-wall coverage. There are mock drafts, draft projections and features on previous draft busts - players taken high in the draft who turned out to be ordinary (read Anthony Bennett, No1 overall pick by the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers in 2013), embarrassing (Ryan Leaf, No2 overall pick by the NFL's San Diego Chargers in 1998), or dead (Len Bias, No2 overall pick by the Boston Celtics in 1986).

If all this paints a picture of rampant commercialism and naked capitalist greed, you'd be half right.

It is unashamedly commercial. The whole production seems to have been created as a way of squeezing content into a few hours of advertising.

But the concept of a draft owes more to socialist ideals than it does capitalism. With bad teams getting the top draft picks, it is these sports' way of artificially achieving parity. For once, the market is not king.

In this respect, America's big sports have avoided the rigid financial stratification that plagues Europe's big football leagues (with obvious apologies to Leicester City).

As a snapshot to illustrate the point, since the first Super Bowl was held in 1967, the Pittsburgh Steelers have won the most titles with six. In that same timeframe, Real Madrid have won La Liga 21 times, Bayern Munich have won the Bundesliga 24 times, Juventus the Serie A 22 times (with two later rescinded) and Manchester United have been champions of England 14 times.

The plusses of a nationally televised Super Rugby draft far outweigh the minuses.

The contracting environment allows for it now, whereas it didn't a few short years ago. The draft would be a useful parity mechanism, ensuring the suddenly trendy Chiefs don't continue to siphon the cream of the talent.

There would need to be new mechanisms to support a draft. Super Rugby squads would need to be enlarged and they would have to have the ability to farm developing players out to NPC teams.

Like the AFL, they could institute a "father-son clause" to give franchises preferential recruiting access to the sons of those who have served the franchise well in the past.

There would also need to be pathways to Super Rugby beyond the draft, allowing for those who develop late through the NPC.

These are all tricky issues and will require consultation with the franchises' private owners and player representatives. But the benefits should be manifold.

Transparency: It would help shed the sport's everything-is-a-secret culture. The first thing professional players are taught is how not to trust the media. It permeates everything they do from that point forward.
With a draft, one of the first things a would-be professional player would be taught is how to interact in a mutually beneficial way with the media.

Regeneration: It would ensure constant new talent for the five franchises, which would, in turn, guarantee that the European leagues and Japanese competition remains clogged up with New Zealand's cast-offs. Win-win.

Retention: It would be an immeasurable boon to keeping young talent. Rather than our gifted kids signing contracts with the Melbourne Storm or Wests Tigers or, in the case of the overhyped Taniela 'Tongan Thor' Tupou, the Reds, they'd be tempted to stick around to see what their draft value was.

Money: It is an event they could sell to sponsors or, if NZR are completely lacking in the requisite imagination to make this work, it could be packaged as the AIG Super Draft. With the best of national 1st XV rugby televised and the Auckland competition having its own YouTube channel, there'd be no shortage of footage to keep the entertainment wheels spinning.

Intimidation: It would also send a message to the rest of the rugby world, telling them in stark terms just what a production line of talent New Zealand has available.

Good people: But the biggest benefit of all could, no should, be the rules in place around the draft. To become draft eligible, students must have completed five years of secondary school to an agreed academic standard. New Zealand would then be churning out not just better footy players but, you guessed it, better people.

It's a big winner all around, surely?

* Congratulations to NZR chair Brent Impey for highlighting at the AGM the shocking lack of female presence on rugby boards in this apparently forward-thinking country.

- Herald on Sunday

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