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Thread: Kiwi players encouraged to fly

  1. #1
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    Kiwi players encouraged to fly

    Kiwi players encouraged to fly

    The Sunday Star-Times, c/o Rugby Heaven
    Tuesday, April 10, 2007

    In the past, players who turned their backs on the New Zealand game were virtually blackballed. Greg Ford looks at the new approach to player welfare.

    As an All Black Wayne Smith was idolised but after packing his bags for a coaching stint in Italy he left the country as a traitor.

    A decade later, having ingratiated himself with the local rugby fraternity upon returning home, the rug was pulled from under his feet.

    He was dumped as All Blacks coach so took up a job coaching Northampton.

    "On both occasions, particularly earlier in my career when I went to Italy, I felt as if the rugby community back here had blackballed me," said the All Blacks' assistant coach.

    "I had to work my way back in regardless of the fact I had played all my life here.

    "Leaving in those days was definitely frowned upon."

    How times have changed.

    When Aaron Mauger announced he was pulling stumps at the end of the year, Smith was among the first to wish him well.

    Byron Kelleher and Sam Tuitupou have since followed suit, both heading away with the blessing of the New Zealand Rugby Union when, in another era, they would have been treated as pariahs.

    This dramatic shift in is a healthy thing, according to Smith and others.

    "We can't keep everyone," Smith explains.

    "Most of them go for the same reasons other young New Zealanders head away; to have a good time and experience a different culture.

    "We'll try damn hard to keep as many players as we can, but if they go, I think it's important they don't feel as if they will be ostracised when they come back."

    New Zealand Rugby Players' Association boss Rob Nichol applauds the new attitude. He believes fewer players are actually jumping ship because playing conditions here have never been better.

    "We can always do better, but the fact is players are happier than they have ever been," he said.

    One reason for that is they are now paid retainers.

    Until a year ago players were paid depending on what teams they were selected in. If they missed out on the All Blacks or Super 14 they got zip. But retainers, paid for the duration of their contract, have offered greater financial security.

    "So the retainers are working in the sense that they were designed to do away with the archaic selection payment method which was, from our point of view, unfair," Nichol added.

    Yet players still leave.

    "In some instances the retainers are the reason why some players stay. But in some instances it possibly won't be enough and that isn't the fault of the guaranteed retainers.

    "It's more likely to do with the quantum of money on offer and the individual player's personal circumstances such as selection."

    It's no secret why players are flying north - cash and plenty of it.

    As one player agent put it recently, "there is a lot of sugar on offer at the moment".

    The sweetest offers are coming from France where there is no salary cap restriction.

    "Why would you want to go to the UK and get flogged every week in terrible conditions when you can go to the south of France and get paid twice as much and enjoy a much better lifestyle," the agent said.

    Few would find fault with his logic.

    But Smith cautions the grass isn't always greener in the northern hemisphere.

    "Sometimes people can look at the overseas option with rose-tinted glasses," he said.

    "For young guys such as Aaron Mauger, who have put a lot of thought into going, it is the right decision.

    "His kids are at a good age to travel and it's a good time for him.

    "But it's not all beer and skittles over there. It can be a hard life. You are away from friends and family.

    "You are expected to perform at a level above the local players and in some pretty bitter winter conditions in three different competitions if you are in the premiership."

    Rugby players, in an ideal world, would never leave New Zealand, at least not until they were past their prime, as has been the case in the past. The perception now is that players are leaving at an earlier age when their market value is greatest. Nichol disagrees.

    "It's surprising when you look at it. Most of them have plied their trade here for at least six or seven years.

    "They have packed their bags because they have reached a threshold, if you like. It's just like it was a decade or more ago.

    "The only difference is players back then were a bit older because it took longer for them to reach the top.

    "I'm not for a second saying we should drop the ball and let them all go. We need to keep working on keeping them here. But inevitably some will take the opportunity to go.

    "Most of them want to come back and get involved in rugby here again and that hasn't always been the case in the past. That's the best endorsement we can get."

    New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive designate Steve Tew says this is vital to the success of the game here. He says players such as Todd Blackadder, who left New Zealand in the autumn of his career, returned and is now sharing his expertise with the Crusaders.

    "We need to keep those networks alive," he said.

    "I would argue they come back better players and coaches for their experience. Wayne Smith and Graham Henry did.

    "So we are not going to blackball anyone just because they decide to go overseas."

    Stopping them is still top of his agenda, however.

    "The problems they face over there are not inconsiderable. The lure of money is attractive and hard to compete with. But they play in a spaghetti web of competitions over there in two or three different leagues week in week out.

    "I wonder - and I'm not making accusations - but I wonder whether owners of those clubs have the same care and concerns that we have for long-term welfare and career aspiration of players.

    "We work hard on creating the best environment. That's all we can do."

    But that still doesn't reconcile with the fact incumbent All Blacks are leaving behind their boyhood dream, conjuring up the scary prospect that wearing the black jersey may not be all it's cracked up to be, although it would be career suicide for any All Black to admit as much. But an All Black's lifestyle is akin to being in a fishbowl, which has its drawbacks.

    "That's one of issues players face," said Tew. "The complete loss of privacy for a young person is especially challenging. But again, I think we can mitigate that by helping players with those sorts of things."

    Tew is confident the NZRU's policy which says players who reside outside New Zealand are ineligible for the All Blacks is legally watertight.

    There have been suggestions it could be deemed a restraint of trade. Because no player has - or will likely - challenge the rule, we'll probably never know.

    But it raises an interesting point.

    If Justin Marshall, who wants to play for the All Blacks but resides in England, was to take the NZRU to court and win, would it be the death knell for All Blacks rugby?

    Tew leaves little doubt that it would.

    "It would have a detrimental effect on New Zealand rugby full stop."

    The NZRU would be at the whim of overseas clubs loath to release a player such as Dan Carter for test duty.

    That's why Tew is trying to think outside the square and accommodate modern player demands.

    It's not inconceivable someone such as Carter might ask Tew for an early release from his contract, which expires in 2008.

    If he played in France for two years on the condition he returns home in 2010, he could slot back into the All Blacks and then lead us into what hopefully would be the defence of the Rugby World Cup on home soil in 2011.

    Tew said release clauses were being considered.

    "We have talked about that," he confirmed.

    "How much strength you can build into that sort clause and whether they would come back if they go to somewhere like France is unclear.

    "If they want to stay what would we do then?

    "The reality is we want to create an environment they don't want to leave and, if they do, they want to come home to. But we're looking at ways to keep in touch so release clauses are a possibility."

    Nichol said they could be an effective way of lengthening careers.

    "Other employers offer them so why not in rugby?" he said.

    "We're pretty keen to see them introduced into contracts.

    "If someone who has provided good service and is a good performer says he is keen to commit to New Zealand rugby but knows he's going to need a break sometime in the next three years then this is a way to take care of that.

    "They may want to travel, do some study, take a five month playing sabbatical somewhere else to freshen up," said Nicol.

    "I think it's timely that we take another look at trying to introduce them."

    Nichol said the players' association was also keen to address issues with the Super 14 draft.

    In recent years some players have been reluctant to relocate to another franchise, citing personal reasons.

    "We have more players with school- aged kids than we have ever had before. The draft is putting families under pressure.

    "It's not easy shifting your kids and home to a new city for a short space of time. So we need to keep pace with those sorts of player dynamics as well as the threat from offshore."

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  2. #2
    Immortal Contributor The InnFORCEr's Avatar
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    I thought the headline was suggesting they take up Ben Cousins style extra curicular activities!

    It doesn't seem fair that both palyers and Unions can have their cake and eat it as well. You want to play for your country then you should have to reside there otherwise we'll end up in the same situation that soccer is in, where money is the sole motivating factor in decision making. Just look at Beckham.

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  3. #3
    Immortal Contributor
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    There's about twenty two I wouldn't mind seeing fly North after the S14

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  4. #4
    Veteran Sagerian's Avatar
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    Dec 2005
    Only 22? If they sent another 60 of their top players on top of that, I'd start to feel safer.

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