Tony Veitch: All Blacks have the right to choose

By Tony Veitch

Steven Luatua goes in for a try against Italy. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Steven Luatua goes in for a try against Italy. Photo / Brett Phibbs

What became clear this week is the all powerful All Black machine treats the information flow from players and their management team as paramount.

The latest to incur obvious frustration from the All Black coach and captain is immensely powerful and talented ball player Steven Luatua.

Kieran Read was the first to say he was saddened Luatua had chased the cash in the UK.

Steve Hansen went even further, asking where the communication was prior to the ink drying on the contract. In Hansen's words, he was frustrated he never got at least a chance to pitch for the All Blacks and New Zealand rugby.

"Some agents, when they get an offer, they'll come to the table and negotiate, others won't," he said.

Hansen is also clearly not happy with the lack of patriotic support from former Blues coach Pat Lam, who secured Luatua's signature for Bristol.

"If you're an ex-New Zealander, you should be a bit mindful of players' careers."

But that, as they say, is only one side of the story.

Craig Innes, who is part of the Esportif management team that looks after Luatua, is bemused by Hansen's comments.

According to Innes, not only did they approach New Zealand Rugby's contracting team, but an offer was put on the table. Correspondence between Esportif and New Zealand Rugby started in December.

So how then did Hansen not know Luatua was being offered a life-changing deal to join Bristol?

This seems very odd, especially when you add in the meeting Luatua had with the All Black coaches two weeks ago, when all aspects of 2017 were discussed, except for the small matter of Luatua potentially going overseas.

Here's the real issue. Does the All Black coach have the right to cry foul publicly when a player he's invested in heavily decides there is more to life than the black jersey?

I think everyone will admit Luatua, despite showing much promise and the odd outstanding match, has not reached his potential. He's not the finished product.

The All Black coaches argue, through their work and loyalty, that is not far away. Yet Lam will benefit from that development, not the All Blacks. Isn't that just professional sport?

This is not the first time we've heard the All Blacks express some angst over a young player leaving. Richard Kahui did a similar thing a few years back, which led to frustration from Hansen and an eventual apology from Kahui for not checking with the big dog before signing.

Then came the ultimate falling out between selectors and a player, when Charles Piutau headed to Ireland after an NZR contract had been sent to him for a final sign-off which never came. Piutau's punishment was being banned from playing for the Blues, even though his overseas deal did not begin until round 12 of the Super Rugby competition.

Do young men who have grown into world class players in the All Black environment, and therefore become hot targets on the open market, owe their coaches full disclosure?

I'm not sure. Luatua has made a call and in the long run, it may well be the wrong one. But it's his call, and from my understanding, the contract he has signed is massive. The one NZR put in front of him was chicken feed by comparison.

We often hear from NZR chief executive Steve Tew that New Zealand rugby cannot keep everyone. A case in point is Aaron Cruden, who is going to France.

But is it right for the national body and All Black coaches to cry foul when a player is merely making the choice every one of us does in our working life, to stay or go.

I don't think Luatua is a big loss. To the Blues, sure, but not to the men in black. But given the comments of Hansen and Co, he won't be high on their selection list when the squad to play the Lions is named and Lam won't be on Hansen's Christmas card list either. But after receiving a statement from Lam during the week, there's no doubt he's had a gutsful.

In this modern world of professional sport, where players move like the wind, all this angst seems a little unnecessary.

- NZ Herald

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