Rugby, perhaps because of a crisis of confidence or good practice, is seemingly putting every part of itself under the microscope to discover how much is fit for purpose.
It’s the buzz phrase of the moment. There is an ongoing process to overhaul the governance structure on the basis it has been found to no longer be fit for purpose, while the provinces have suggested New Zealand Rugby’s management team are not fit for purpose and chief executive Mark Robinson has in turn said the provincial championship is not fit for purpose.
Given that so much energy is being devoted to determining which key pillars of the game are crumbling, it would be remiss in this climate of recrimination-free, deep-dive analysis, not to ask whether All Blacks eligibility rules remain fit for purpose.
The rule not allowing players contracted offshore to play for the All Blacks has served New Zealand well.
There has, since 1996, been an evidential basis to say that the alignment between centralised contracts and a restrictive international selection policy has protected and promoted a strong domestic environment that has produced a mostly successful All Blacks team.
But, through a combination of dynamic international market forces, poor strategic management of Super Rugby, the impact of Covid and the near collapse of Australia as a serious rugby nation, the landscape has shifted to such a degree as to have potentially tipped the balance in favour of making some kind of change to the existing framework.
The argument for retaining things as they are remains fear based — that opening eligibility will unleash the true power of foreign market forces to suck the best players out of New Zealand, damaging the domestic pipeline and potentially losing the bulk of the home-grown IP that remains critical to the health of the game in this country.
Former All Blacks captain Kieran Read made this point just days ago when he said he feared the entire domestic rugby system would collapse if eligibility were changed.
“From my point of view, I don’t think New Zealand Rugby, the All Blacks or anyone could survive if we end up going down that route, just yet.
“We need our guys playing in New Zealand. We need a strong competition that’s getting fans along to games, getting them engaged, keeping them engaged. We can’t be doing that if we’re off playing around the world.”
NZR has stayed wedded to its position that however tough it may be to find the money to keep the best players here, and however frustrating it may be to occasionally lose world-class talent such as Richie Mo’unga to an offshore predator, the present system remains the best of a range of imperfect solutions to the pressures New Zealand is under to produce a winning All Blacks side.
But what has weakened this argument to an extent worth properly evaluating, is the perceived level of risk that NZR would be taking by changing eligibility, and just as significantly, the decline of Super Rugby has potentially created a new world where some elite players may be better served playing in a different league that better suits their age profile and skills needs.
There’s long been this idea that players will automatically follow the money and leave New Zealand in their droves if they were able to earn a stack of cash abroad and play for the All Blacks.
But this undersells the sophistication of the players’ decision-making and appreciation of how things will really be.
It’s too simplistic to say that an exodus will be an inevitable consequence of changing the eligibility rules.
Players know they would be taking a huge risk by leaving becuase no matter who the All Blacks coach is, they will struggle to effectively monitor players outside New Zealand and probably also have a natural bias towards picking those in Super Rugby Pacific.
Then there is the whole issue of player release around the Rugby Championship — a real and debilitating problem for both the Springboks and Pumas — and the more-pressing issue of when Northern-based club players in Southern Hemisphere international teams get a break from playing.
Also, the English clubs have limited financial capacity to buy big-name players and it’s debatable how much interest French and Irish teams would have in buying All Blacks if they knew they were likely to lose them to test rugby a few months every year.
The prospect of an exodus seems unlikely and perhaps, to allay those fears, the first steps in any change process should be to place limitations on the number of offshore players the All Blacks can pick and establish criteria they must have reached in terms of test caps won and seasons played in Super Rugby.
Effectively, the argument is there to say that NZR should consider opening eligibility to players (who meet the criteria) contracted to any club in Super Rugby and Japan.
As All Blacks captain Sam Cane said this week, the Springboks have proved it’s possible to quickly integrate players from all over the world into a winning team so it seems a little alarmist to believe New Zealand couldn’t successfully manage to get its act together to cope with a few players being picked out of Japan and Australia.
To dismiss this outright is to deny the possibility that some All Blacks may be better served leaving New Zealand to develop as test footballers.
Cane shortly turns 32 and a season in Japan, where the training is more aerobic and the games less physical, may enable him to develop the speed and agility he feels his game lacks.
And maybe in time, NZR needs to think about certain players being sanctioned to play in Europe because, after another four years in Super Rugby, it may be better for players such as Ethan de Groot, Tupou Vai’i and Tamaiti Williams to be exposed to the physically tougher, more set-piece-focused world of French rugby.
Above all else, the real reason this change needs to be duly considered is that it’s already happening, but in a sort of haphazard, clandestine fashion that exists purely because NZR wants to keep up the facade that the All Blacks have rigid and non-negotiable eligibility rules.
They don’t, and allowing a small, specific number of players to be selected from Japan (and Australia) would be a means to clean up and clarify a blurry and almost-secret set of rules that already allows players to be picked from there.
Gregor Paul is one of New Zealand’s most respected rugby writers and columnists. He has won multiple awards for journalism and has written several books about sport.