Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Why does Auckland have a rugby problem?

Blues' Tanerau Latimer is injured during the Super Rugby match between the Golden Lions and the Auckland Blues at the Ellis Park. Photo / Getty Images.
Blues' Tanerau Latimer is injured during the Super Rugby match between the Golden Lions and the Auckland Blues at the Ellis Park. Photo / Getty Images.

Auckland has a stunning talent base. And the city hosts a chronically underachieving, exasperatingly erratic Super Rugby side.

It is logical to assume that one shouldn't lead to the other and yet for the last decade it has and why Auckland doesn't have a dominant Super Rugby team yet produces so many gifted schoolboy athletes remains as perplexing as it does valid.

Shouldn't it be straight forward? Identify the best players emerging in the world renowned 1A schools competition and then contract them?

Tomorrow: What happens to players in the system

The first part is happening as it should. The problem does not lie in identification. It lies with the contracting. Auckland and the Blues know who they want, but getting them is not always simple.

Multiple external forces make the process anything but simple and result in a phenomenal talent base being dispersed around the country. That's not reason to believe the entire system of finding the right schoolboys and developing them into Super Rugby players is broken.

And to fully understand where the problems lie, it's imperative to distinguish between Auckland Rugby and the Blues and not pin the failings of one on the other.

"There's a reason Auckland and Canterbury make the playoffs most years," says Auckland's high performance manager Ben Meyer. "The academies are ranked number one and number two in the country."

It's a statement made to illustrate that underperformance at the Blues can't be viewed as an endemic failing of the wider Auckland development system.

There's a raft of statistics that should deter lazy assessments that recruitment - not finding the right players to keep in Auckland - is the root cause of all of the Blues' problems.

There are seven current, contracted Auckland players in each of the New Zealand Super Rugby franchises and also one, Liaki Moli, at the Sunwolves. There are another 19 players in Super Rugby franchises other than the Blues who were schooled in Auckland.

And it's here, with these numbers, that the story is largely told. There are 24,000 or so registered players in Auckland alone. Throw in North Harbour and Northland and that accounts for close to 35 per cent of all the players in New Zealand and ultimately they are competing for just 38 Super Rugby contracts, because Auckland, despite having more than one third of the population, has the same number of Super Rugby contracts to offer as the Highlanders.

Supply and demand are so unbalanced that it is inevitable that every year significant numbers of the best schoolboy players will not be able to stay in Auckland to pursue professional careers.

But while the city is doomed on a quantitative scale, there is surely grounds to believe that on the qualitative front, they can keep the players, or at least most of them, that they want?

Again, though, there are extraneous circumstances which make even that goal hard to achieve. Simon Porter, the country's leading player agent at Essentially Group, says: "There is certainly real understanding around Auckland's 1A competition. It has a really strong emphasis on coaching and while it's not necessarily true that the individual players are better, there is this high concentration of good players.

"And other unions across the country know that Auckland can't keep everyone."

Competition for talent is fierce and this isn't replicated across the country. The reputation of the 1A brings talent scouts from everywhere. "When you are at a First XV game in Auckland and look down the touchline," says Blues high performance manager Tony Hanks, "you can see talent identification guys from other provincial unions, Super Rugby guys, there's me, there's the NRL and there's sometimes even someone from the AFL."

Other provincial unions are easily the biggest purchaser of Auckland schoolboy talent and in the recruitment battle, they hold several advantages. A simplified synopsis of the way the best players are found nationwide is that schools nominate players to attend a Super Rugby Under 18 camp, unusually in June-July.

About 50-55 players from each franchise make the cut and these names are put on the national selectors' watchlist. "But what we find," says Meyer, "is that some boys up here will already have been contacted by a provincial union before the lists go public.

"The 1A competition has a lot of TV exposure on Sky and with the livestreaming of games as well, it's pretty easy for everyone to do their research."

Almost without fail, if Auckland have their eye on a 1A player, it's certain that at least one other union or even two or more will be in the hunt. Price inflation becomes a major issue and a significant factor in why they can't always keep even the players they want.

The entry point into the professional ranks for schoolboys is usually a provincial union development contract. Typically $2500 is the going rate. These contracts can be topped up by a Super Rugby franchise to $7500: anything more than that and the excess has to count towards the ITM Cup salary cap.

Here's where Auckland get stung: most other unions are able to contract their best local players on minimum provincial union development contracts because there is not such fierce competition.

What they can then do is target one player in Auckland whom they really want and offer that individual over the odds - usually a full ITM Cup contract worth a minimum of $18,000 a season.

In any given year, Meyer can find that half or more of the schoolboy players they have identified as ones they want, are holding offers from elsewhere that are in excess of the $7500 threshold.

Some, such as Rieko and Akira Ioane, Blake Gibson, Sam Nock and Jordan Trainor they can make exceptions for - offer them either Super Rugby or Super Rugby wider training contracts to keep them.

But while the Blues were able to keep Gibson and Trainor, the consequence was that they couldn't hold on to Mitchell Karpik and Shaun Stevenson who were both taken by the Chiefs.

Adding a further layer of complexity is that often the obvious stars of Auckland's 1A competition are boarders. They have come to Auckland on scholarship or for the better educational opportunity it presents and maintain strong links with their home province.

Jonah Lowe is a classic example. The younger brother of former Hurricanes openside Karl was a huge influence in the King's College side in 2014 and made the New Zealand Schools squad.

But the Magpies had tracked him all the way and knew they wanted him back and to ensure they got him, are believed to have paid well in excess of $18,000.

The final card stacked against Auckland is the city's comparatively high cost of living.

Players on provincial union development contracts are expected to be enrolled in tertiary education or hold part-time work.The cost of fees, accommodation, travelling to training and club games is estimated at around $25,000 a year. There's a hassle and time factor, too and for a handful of promising, young players, Auckland just doesn't appeal.

"Auckland can be a tough place," says Porter. "Life can be a lot more manageable in other parts of the country."

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