Picking All Blacks from overseas clubs is again an issue, after Sam Cane suggested it might be an idea worth revisiting.
Given the exodus of players like Richie Mo’unga, Shannon Frizell, and Leicester Fainga’anuku, who all had the potential to play at the next World Cup in 2027, Cane’s musing is completely understandable.
But my feeling is that it won’t happen, at least not until the pros vastly outweigh the cons. Meanwhile, four points to consider.
It was years ago, but it did once work
Before the 1995 World Cup in South Africa, halfback Graeme Bachop signed with the Japanese club, Sanix. All Blacks coach Laurie Mains was so keen to have him at the Cup, a handshake deal was struck with the Japanese. After training with Sanix, coached by 1984 All Black Mark Finlay, Bachop was released to play in South Africa. He was one of the star performers at the ‘95 Cup.
The agreement was so amicable, Frank Bunce, his room-mate in Johannesburg, recalled how two Sanix officials flew from Japan to South Africa just to thank Bachop in person for the honour his sparkling form for the All Blacks had brought to the club.
Can you imagine a French club owner resting a star?
Scott Robertson having the facility to cherry-pick one or two key New Zealand players from the tough European leagues would be ideal, if the French showed the same respect that Sanix displayed almost three decades ago.
But that seems doubtful. Even the French Federation of Rugby basically has to beg clubs to make sure players are available for their own national team. Every time a player is removed from club play to join the French squad, the club’s salary cap is increased for the next season.
It beggars belief that, for example, Toulon rugby club owner Mourad Boudjellal, the man who suggested Julian Savea was playing so badly in France he must have been “swapped on the plane”, would react warmly to a suggestion from New Zealand Rugby that an All Black in his team be given a break, to freshen up for an All Black test series.
There’s a huge contrast in New Zealand, where the All Blacks trump everything.
New Zealand Rugby, not private club owners, dictate the terms for Super Rugby teams and the All Blacks. It’s the reason many All Blacks, after a big year, start their Super Rugby season later than non-All Blacks.
It’s the economy
While playing “Bash the rugby union” has been a much-loved game in New Zealand for years, keeping All Blacks home has actually been a remarkably successful balancing act from our officials.
Running the game in a country with a population one-thirteenth the size of Britain or France, means finding the cash to pay our best players could be seen as a mission impossible.
The All Black jersey is a trump card in holding some players, while judicious use of playing sabbaticals is another.
In the end, having a winning team drags in sponsorships, and, in an economic circle of life, on-field success equals cash, and cash keeping our best players here equals success.
Winning young hearts
We’ve seen the surge in playing numbers in women’s rugby as first the sevens side at the 2020 Olympics, and then the Black Ferns at last year’s World Cup, took on and beat the world.
In an age where online influencers dominate the thinking of most kids, on-field influencers are essential if rugby is to survive in the 21st century.
A fractured All Black team is a possibility if wholesale off-shore selections became the norm, but even worse, and likely to happen more quickly, could be the decimation of Super Rugby
We stared into the abyss of the best All Blacks being out of Super teams in 2007, when the bulk of the national side were on a reconditioning programme.
There was a catastrophic drop in audiences at the grounds, and viewing television.
If the Super competitions were virtually a training ground for our top young players to prepare for French, English, Italian or Japanese clubs, crowds at games here would surely plunge to provincial rugby level.
Picking All Blacks from overseas may become essential at some point, but right now it feels like a development to only be approached with the same care as walking a tightrope over a lion’s cage, while smeared with antelope mince.