Rugby to New Zealand is like cricket to India. Side-stepping your sister down a heavily sloped patch of grass is a superb confidence booster for the impending knee rugby battle in your auntie’s lounge later that day. The immense depth of the New Zealand rugby talent pool is unsurprising when you consider every kiwi kid grows up clutching an oval ball.
However, what was once hidden away behind the pull of a potential All Black jersey has now become an established resource for Northern Hemisphere international rugby. And it may well come back to hurt the All Blacks.
Super Rugby players are being plucked out in their prime and shipped (not literally) abroad in the hope of gaining residency/citizenship and representing another nation; think ‘Welshman’ Gareth Anscombe, ‘Scotsman’ Sean Maitland, ‘Englishman’ Dylan Hartley, ‘Irishman’ Jared Payne… you get the idea.
Rather than ‘guts it out’ downunder in the hope of getting a Stephen Donald-esque phone call, the second tier of New Zealand rugby players have another option; the lure of World Cup Rugby, and who could blame them for grabbing that opportunity and running. In years gone, Northern Hemisphere rugby, in particular France and England, was considered by most Kiwi rugby stars as the place you go in your twilight playing years to line your pockets before retiring. There or the commentary box of course.
This is no longer the case. Players with their best years still ahead of them are heading north in their early 20’s now, in the hope of making a name for themselves in an adopted homeland. A few names you may not have heard of before to look out for in next years Ireland team are Bundee Aki, Nepia Fox-Matamua and Jake Heenan. Three players who may well have donned black had they stuck around Kiwi-land, but were given an opportunity and may well now be playing international code in the next 12-24 months. It’s a nervous time for the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) as this depth departs and slowly rises to the top in other corners of the world, because it may well be that same perceived depth that comes back to bite them in years to come.
Other teams are already catching up to the All Blacks, and without the money to compete with the Europeans and as the itch of wearing black seems to be fading, is there nothing that can be done to prevent an overhaul? South Africa now allows their players to ply their trade overseas and still be selected for international duty; Australia and New Zealand insist on domestic availability.
Australia has been swallowed up; New Zealand could be next.