New Zealand is good at looking after its players, managing them carefully. Ireland is better.

New Zealand's system is based on gentleman's agreements between club and national coaches, handshake deals that are more best practice guidelines on how much game time top players should have than actual working policy.

Ireland's system is dictatorial, defined, enforceable, not open to any kind of interpretation or manipulation and if the national coaches say someone is not available for their club, they are not available for their club.

New Zealand's system needs to become more like Ireland's and no doubt when All Blacks coach Steve Hansen shuffles off later this year, he'll be sure to tell his successor to fight hard for a new, non-negotiable way of managing international players through Super Rugby.


He'll have sat through the first weekend of Super Rugby partly astonished and partly enraged that so many of his probable World Cup squad were not managed the way they were supposed to be.

And he won't have been alone in thinking that asking Super Rugby coaches nicely to look after test players isn't working now if it ever was at all.

The current way of doing things is putting good players at risk of injury and burn out and inevitably with that, a step closer to the clutches of one of the many foreign predators endlessly hoping to snare a disgruntled All Black.

From next year, if the All Blacks are to believe they really are at the top of the food chain and their ongoing success is the highest priority, then they need to be supported by New Zealand Rugby in laying down the law about exactly how much club football test stars can play in Super Rugby.

There will be resistance to this as there have been previous incidents in the past when New Zealand Rugby has given the All Blacks coaches ultimate power to dictate terms to Super Rugby coaches and they haven't gone well.

The most memorable was the non-consultative decision made in late 2006 to keep 22 All Blacks out of the first seven rounds of Super Rugby in 2007.

It was sprung on the Super Rugby coaches – and indeed broadcast rights holder Sky – and was an absolute disaster on every level.

All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen. Photo / Brett Phibbs.
All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen. Photo / Brett Phibbs.

Since then, NZR has encouraged the various All Blacks coaching regimes to take a more softly-softly approach with Super Rugby clubs and be sensitive to their needs.


Super Rugby coaches are genuinely cognitive of the fact the competition is so long these days that they need to be clever about juggling their resources: about making sure they give their All Blacks players the odd week off.

They aren't so much thinking about the big picture in this regard. They aren't trying to keep their best players on simmer with a view to ensuring they have something left to give the All Blacks later in the year.

They are doing it because they need their All Blacks to be fresh and firing in the last weeks of Super Rugby.

Hence the All Blacks and Super Rugby coaches are not truly aligned, yet there is enough overlap in their respective goals to reach compromise agreements on how test players should be managed through a campaign.

But what tends to happen is that the agreements that were made preseason are ditched when the Super Rugby coaches come under pressure.

Last week a handful of Crusaders All Blacks were not meant to play 80 minutes, but when the Blues were refusing to lie down and threatening a surprise win, coach Scott Robertson felt he had no choice but to leave his heavy artillery out there.

The same scenario played out in Sydney later that night and the day before in Hamilton and despite the agreement that no All Black would play more than either 40 minutes or 60 minutes in the first round, plenty did.

For a country that prides itself on looking after its players it was surely madness that having been not allowed to play any pre-season games, leading All Blacks went straight into playing 80 minutes of a frenetic local derby.

And this is the problem – as much as Super Rugby coaches want to help the All Blacks and look after their players, they want to win more.

So here we are in World Cup year and in theory the All Blacks have a management plan for their best players, but in practice they don't.

Super Rugby coaches don't face any sanctions if they don't comply with the pre-season agreements that were made about managing game-time, but they do lose their jobs if their team doesn't perform well.

The system, it would appear, now needs to change as it can't work on trust in the same way children can't be let loose in the sweet shop and be told to make sensible choices.

Either there is no requirement at all for Super Rugby coaches to manage their players to any kind of plan or the All Blacks get to dictate absolute terms where there are consequences if they are broken.

Ireland have opted for the latter and it has shot them up the world rankings.