Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: Avoiding England is right for All Blacks

Jerome Kaino and Courtney Lawes compete the last time the All Blacks played England. Photo / photosport.nz
Jerome Kaino and Courtney Lawes compete the last time the All Blacks played England. Photo / photosport.nz

The All Blacks won't play England in November this year and while it might seem like an opportunity lost, it's the right outcome.

The right outcome because it always felt conflicted and contradictory that New Zealand has been a champion of player welfare for much of the professional age and campaigned hard to build a longer off season, and yet there they were, seriously contemplating shoe-horning another brutal game into an already packed schedule.

Their reasons for wanting to do so were understandable - New Zealand Rugby faces a constant battle of bringing in enough money to keep players here and the All Blacks on top of the world against not over committing the very brand from which all of their commercial clout comes.

Playing a test against the Barbarians was the perfect compromise. It was a chance to tuck a wad of cash into the coffers, risk free because the All Blacks take a guaranteed fee and an underwriter all the risk, while giving a younger, emerging group of players a solid outing in the jersey.

Two boxes ticked.

Had England been able to hijack the process by dangling a big enough financial carrot, New Zealand Rugby would have weakened its position on the player welfare front. Significantly so.

Since 2012 the All Blacks have had to play seven tests in the last nine weeks of the season - a run of games that takes them round the world twice and through 17 different time zones.

This is a real lament for them: a schedule that takes the players to the brink of their physical capacity and as coach Steve Hansen told the New Zealand Rugby board this week, the All Blacks crawled over the line last year.

If a deal had been reached to play England, New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew said the money would have been quite a bit higher than what's going to be banked by playing the Barbarians.

But the cynics could have had a field day had the England game been agreed and suggested that the value New Zealand Rugby puts on player welfare is the difference between what England and the Barbarians offered.

Not playing England this year feels like the right thing to do. If NZR are going to organise extra, revenue-sharing games, they have to be right from both a financial and a rugby perspective.

The England game was only going to tick one of those boxes. Hansen's preference was to play the Barbarians and while he would have adjusted accordingly had that changed, he'd have been doing so to justify the financial argument. The tail would have been wagging the dog.

These extra games always work best when the coaches come out happier than the accountants.

Next year, then, will most likely see the All Blacks tag on an extra test again - but not necessarily against a Tier One nation. In 2014 they agreed to play the US in Chicago before taking on England, Scotland and Wales.

They saw that run as similar to the one they would face at the World Cup - a final pool game against a Tier Two nation and then three tough knockout games.

The World Cup draw for 2019 will be made later this year and that might dictate how the All Blacks set up their November tour in 2018.

If they are given a hard, final pool game in the draw, maybe they will look to replicate that by playing a revenue-sharing game against a Tier One nation in November next year, before taking on England and two other Tier One games that haven't yet been revealed.

- NZ Herald

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