COMMENT

There's a spin war raging about the heat in the player transfer market and New Zealand Rugby's ability to keep the best players here.

Supposedly there has never been a time like this: the salaries being offered in the North have never previously been so much higher than the top payments in the South. The gap is allegedly wider than it has ever been.

On top of those who are trying to create a negative picture, is this awakening among the younger generation that test football is not the ultimate means by which to define a career.

Advertisement

We are in new territory allegedly - a new world of instant gratification where young players will more readily and easily walk away from a black jersey than they have at any time in history.

It is perhaps a cynical conclusion to reach but those complicit in trying to paint this picture of New Zealand Rugby standing with its finger in the dyke are doing so with a particular goal in mind.

It would seem that NZR is determined to mount a compelling argument that the All Blacks should receive some kind of government funding to help keep the national team as a world class brand.

NZR sees player retention as it's key priority and believes that it would have a better chance of success if it had more money to throw at individuals.

There is only so much NZR can extract from its broadcast contract and sponsors and the government seems like the deepest pocket it can delve into in the never ending search for more cash.

Highly paid All Blacks asking for tax payers' money is not an easy policy to sell, but if the story can be spun in a different direction – that the investment is about saving the national team from falling into the evil clutches of foreign club owners, then maybe it has some chance.

Lima Sopoaga has been vocal about the diminishing lure of the All Blacks jersey since moving to Wasps. Photo / Getty
Lima Sopoaga has been vocal about the diminishing lure of the All Blacks jersey since moving to Wasps. Photo / Getty

Clearly, the battle to retain the best players in New Zealand is a tough one. But it has always been a tough one and despite all the claims that the game here is facing new and unknown dangers, it really isn't.

The pay gap between the hemispheres isn't widening across the market. It is specifically becoming more attractive for those players just below the top tier to head to Europe perhaps two or three years earlier than New Zealand Rugby would like.

Advertisement

A player with a handful of test caps and four or five years Super Rugby experience can earn anything between $750,000 to $1million a season in Europe these days, compared with about $250,000-$350,000 a season in New Zealand.

That's why the likes of Steven Luatua, Charles Piutau, Nehe Milner-Skudder and Lima Sopoaga took contract to play in Europe when they were still in the infancy of their respective test careers.

That sort of money to those sorts of players tips the balance in favour of leaving New Zealand, but it has been tipped that way for an age.

And despite Sopoaga's endless commentaries since arriving in the UK about the weakening lure of the black jersey, throughout the professional age there have been varying degrees of commitment to it.

He's hardly the first peripheral All Black to pack his bags prematurely for Europe. Luke McAlister did it in 2007. So too did Carl Hayman, Aaron Mauger and also Nick Evans in 2008.

It's not new for relatively young players to see that while they may have played test rugby – in some cases a considerable amount – that they may not play that much more.

In some cases – Evans – that was because of the presence of a rare talent such as Daniel Carter blocking his path, and others – Hayman – it was simply a case that he didn't like the scrutiny and intensity which came with the role.

Far from changing, the market is being driven by the same trends and patterns that it has been for the last 15 years and while there has been an air of pessimism about the future direction of the player market, the facts speak much louder.

NZR has tied in the bulk of the players it will need to keep the All Blacks strong in 2020. The key signings have been made – Joe Moody, Codie Taylor, Scott Barrett, Damian McKenzie, Rieko Ioane, Nagni Laumape, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ardie Savea and Richie Mo'unga.

Others such as Sam Cane are thought to be close and while Beauden Barrett, Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock are likely to negotiate extended time off, they are expected to soon announce they are staying in New Zealand until 2023.

Having that group tied in doesn't feel like the world is about to cave in for NZR or that the black jersey has lost much, if any of its allure.