By Gregor Paul in Toulouse
New Zealand Rugby’s board will ratify the on-again off-again Super Rugby joint venture agreement with Australia on Friday, and a day later the All Blacks will most likely post their first World Cup win and take a step closer to reaching the quarter-final.
These two events may appear to have no obvious connection to one another, but they are in fact inextricably linked as the fate of the national team has been impacted not just by the demise of Super Rugby in the past decade, but also by the centralised model of control.
How Super Rugby collapsed under the weight of its ambition to expand around the world is a well-traversed story.
Greed, hubris and self-interest combined to build a Mr Potato Head competition that covered three continents, five countries and 17 time zones that didn’t test the best New Zealand players’ skill sets and rugby intelligence but did their ability to endure life in airports.
The problem, as everyone could see, was the number of teams stretched beyond the number of quality players available to fill them and so when Covid hit and the opportunity arose to shrink things down to 12 teams and confine it to the Pacific region, the biggest problem appeared to have been solved.
But two seasons of Super Rugby Pacific have highlighted that there is perhaps a deeper, more fundamental problem impacting the ability of New Zealand’s best players to compete on the world stage – one which is more significant than the relative weakness of the Australian teams they face every other week.
Uniformity of thinking and operating Super Rugby as a glorified and extended All Blacks trial is restricting innovation and competition.
The centralised model of ownership that New Zealand introduced at the beginning of professionalism has long been the envy of the world and one of the country’s secret weapons in getting the best out of its players.
Centralisation – NZR ownership of all professional entities rather than the mixed model of France and England where private investors bought clubs and contractual rights to elite players - gave the national body the ability to manage its players to avoid physical and mental burnout.
It is a system that has enabled the All Blacks to be prioritised – for their needs to be considered first and foremost.
It has, though, been overdone in New Zealand with the national body’s high-performance unit in conjunction with the All Blacks, able to dictate player management programmes that restrict the ability of Super Rugby teams to pick who they want when they want.
This creates an obvious problem around selling the competition to the fans, but it goes deeper than that: it sends a message to Super Rugby teams that their desire to win the competition is secondary to the national body’s goal of preparing the All Blacks to be ready to play tests.
This issue has been reinforced by allowing the All Blacks coaches to have extensive mid-season debriefs with targeted players – where they present individuals with a dossier of skills to work on.
It all makes sense for this level of communication and cooperation to be sanctioned given NZR owns the players’ contracts, but the net effect has been to encourage conformity as an aspiration, stifle individualism and bring a level of uniformity of gameplan to New Zealand’s Super Rugby teams that limits the styles of football to which they are exposed.
There is just the one flavour of rugby in New Zealand – this high-skilled, high-tempo keep-the-ball-in-hand approach, which is thrilling and can be effective, but also besets the All Blacks with vulnerabilities and limitations.
So many experts mock England for their supposed lack of vision, but the rugby intelligence they displayed against Argentina to win their opening World Cup fixture was phenomenal.
And this is perhaps the nub of the centralisation problem – it is conditioning players to a narrow view of what good rugby looks like.
Ironically almost, All Blacks coach Ian Foster said last year that, despite the centralised policy-making, he inherited a squad of players for the Irish series who had not been well prepared by Super Rugby Pacific to play test football.
Regulating the market so to speak is no longer working, or at least the level of regulation needs to be reduced.
Equally, the centralised model has perhaps killed the requisite level of tribalism that sits at the heart of the best club competitions, and this is why the new joint venture agreement, that will effectively set up a new independent body to run Super Rugby Pacific is so important.
It will provide a degree of separation between church and state as it were and begin the process of re-establishing Super Rugby as an independent competition rather than a national body play-thing.
And with a degree of separation, there may come greater autonomy for Super Rugby coaches to determine for themselves the respective workloads of their players and the skill sets they want to see enhanced and emphasised.
This may lead to less uniformity and more pronounced differences in gameplans between the respective New Zealand teams, and in all probability, it will generate greater intensity of competition by driving stronger club identities and accentuating the importance of teams winning rather than individuals impressing in the hope of being selected for higher honours.
And maybe most importantly, it will encourage greater skill and tactical innovation by not having so many elite players working towards a prescribed vision of what qualities are right for their respective positions.
Centralisation worked well for a time, but it’s obvious now that it needs to be scaled back to allow a greater diversity of thinking to be injected into the system, and for Super Rugby coaches to have greater freedom to build gameplans that work best for their players.