Hanging on to the Kiwis' coattails
November 14, 2012
New Zealand have granted Richie McCaw a sabbatical - a move that one suspects is all part of a massive plan © Getty Images
There are two reasons why New Zealand are top of the IRB Rankings and, year in year out, produce the best rugby players in the world.
The first is obvious. They have a huge pool of players despite being only a small nation and a huge tradition and affinity for sport in general. And when it comes to this game in particular, that seems to have endured despite all the distractions of modern living; it is still true to say that the first ambition of almost every New Zealand male child is to be an All Black.
The second is that they have a better playing structure than any other rugby playing nation - the rest of the world looks on in envy. Sure, a few of the players would like to earn more but they know their long-term success is controlled by the New Zealand Rugby Union. That is the key; the NZRU is the only major governing body that still controls the game from top to bottom.
When the game went 'open' in 1995 - ushering in the professional era - New Zealand moved swiftly to ensure they retained complete control of the domestic game. In complete contrast, The Rugby Football Union announced a one year moratorium whilst they considered all the ramifications.
By the time they came up with a plan it was too late. With Sir John Hall leading the revolution in Newcastle (he also owned Newcastle United) the clubs formed themselves into independent businesses and there has been internecine warfare ever since.
South Africa and Australia have also retained a large degree of control and the effect, 17 years on, is a well structured season in the southern hemisphere whilst the European season is a dog's breakfast.
Look at New Zealand. It all starts with Super Rugby. That is played through to its conclusion in one block. The top players then move on to the international season - first the incoming tours from northern hemisphere countries and then the Rugby Championship. The second tier players move on to the Inter-Provincial Competition. The end of season tour to Europe - taking place at the moment - is the final act.
The NZRU still controls the Super Rugby franchises and the players are centrally contracted. They know they have to be playing in New Zealand to play for the All Blacks and accept that as part of the deal but there is also some flexibility.
Once you have earned your stripes you might be granted a special dispensation. It did not work out as planned because of injuries but Dan Carter took advantage with a high earning sabbatical in France after the 2007 World Cup, fully sanctioned by the NZRU provided he was back at home well in time for the preparations for 2011.
Now it is Richie McCaw's turn to take a well-earned rest. After playing England on December 1 he will take a six month break - getting away from rugby altogether - but, significantly, he expects to be back in contention for the Rugby Championship matches next June. You get the feeling it has all been talked through and agreed after a sensible dialogue between Steve Hanson and McCaw. You can bet your life he will still be paid.
Compare that to the chaos in Europe, and in my other role, as MD of a Premiership club, I have had to look at it from a different perspective. This season is particularly difficult because there is the small matter of a Lions' Tour on the end of it and being a Lion seems to mean as much as it ever did - which is gratifying but makes everything even more complicated.
The biggest problem for the players is that they have two masters - the clubs and the RFU - and relations between them go from uneasy cooperation to downright distrust and hostility.
The fixture structure is a complete mess, as trying to explain the difference between the Aviva Premiership, the Heineken Cup, the Amlin Challenge Cup and the Anglo-Welsh Cup to my wife (interested in rugby for the first time now we are regularly on television) has brought it home to me. We are currently playing in our third different competition and there is no point in pretending they all have equal standing. Players and clubs prioritise according to their own needs.
I feel sorry for the top English players. The Premiership is hugely competitive and because of the impact on qualifying for the Heineken Cup there is enormous pressure to perform so they have to start the season at full tilt. Then they change masters and go into the autumn internationals. In December and January it is back to the clubs, then all change for the Six Nations before returning to the defining part of the club season - the final stages of the Premiership and Heineken Cup.
Then, if there is anything left in the tank it is off to Australia - madness.
And that thumbnail sketch only touches the surface. The fact that the RaboDirect Pro 12 means little to the Welsh, Scottish and Irish because they all (or virtually all) qualify for the Heineken Cup whatever, means that players from those countries can manage their seasons to suit themselves. This further muddies the waters but that is for another column.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and currently the managing director of London Welsh