The real reason All Blacks are enticed overseas

by Paul Thomas / 17 March, 2017

Steven Luatua shows promise, but he is now lost to New Zealand rugby. Photo/Getty Images

It is no great surprise, given the numbers playing the game, that All Blacks are being enticed overseas.

According to former Blues coach Pat Lam, there are more than 50 ex-All Blacks playing overseas and therefore, by New Zealand Rugby’s rules, ineligible for the national team.

That sounds like an awful lot of talent that can’t be tapped into but, in reality, how many would be serious contenders for the team that will line up against the British and Irish Lions on June 24?

The great midfield triangle of Dan Carter, Ma‘a Nonu and Conrad Smith will all be 35 by then, with a lot of miles on the clock. Would they hold off the challenge of 2016 World Rugby player of the year Beauden Barrett and men in their physical prime such as Ryan Crotty and Sonny Bill ­Williams? Perhaps the strongest case could be made for the dynamic and versatile Charles Piutau, 25, whose decision in 2015 to join Irish club Ulster caused such consternation.

Despite that and even though the exodus has been a fact of life for 20 years and NZR has been remarkably successful at retaining key players, the so-called player drain has become a soap opera in which storylines are teased out for maximum effect and each season there’s a plot twist we didn’t see coming. Israel Dagg and Ben Smith were the focus of drawn-out “will they go or stay?” dramas but, when all was revealed, it seemed neither had ever seriously considered jumping ship.

All Black coach Steve Hansen was on the money when he hinted late last year that two of Dagg, Smith and Aaron Cruden would stick around – Cruden will join French club Montpellier later this year. But, judging by his reaction, Hansen was as surprised as the rest of us by 25-year-old Blues loose forward Steven Luatua’s decision to link up with Lam at English club Bristol.

Hansen bemoaned the lack of communication. That can be read a number of ways: for instance, if the selectors had known Luatua was seriously contemplating leaving, would they have taken him on tour at the end of last year? It would have made more sense to have gone with someone who offered a better return on investment.

Given Luatua has hardly taken international rugby by storm since his 2013 debut and that, as Lam pointed out, he’s hardly the first – and certainly won’t be the last – ­expatriate Kiwi coach to entice an All Black away, it raises the question of why Hansen reacted so testily.

It may have something to do with the fact that incumbent blindside flanker Jerome Kaino turns 34 in April and Highlander Elliot Dixon’s ­audition for the understudy/­successor role wasn’t entirely ­convincing. Perhaps Hansen and co have ­remembered the young Kaino had similar strengths and weaknesses to Luatua and spent several years on the fringes before developing into the intimidating presence who helped the All Blacks win two World Cups.

Individual cases aside, is the exodus, often portrayed as an ­existential threat to New Zealand rugby, really such a bad thing? There’s a management theory that organisations need to replace 10% of their personnel each year to avoid stagnation. There are roughly 200 fully professional positions in New Zealand rugby: if there’s no turnover – and bear in mind that players now tend to play for as long as possible (it beats clocking on in the real world) rather than quit in their prime to focus on their careers, as often happened in the amateur era – what becomes of the dozens of talented youngsters who emerge from the academies each year with the goal of securing a Super Rugby contract?

This article was first published in the March 4, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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