NZ can't afford to lose its Tom Marshalls
April 20, 2015
Crusaders 9-26 Chiefs (Australia only)
It's been interesting to watch the varying reaction to New Zealand rugby's player exodus from the other side of the Tasman; at times with just a little bit of a wry smile.
From players to coaches, All Blacks greats to the man on the street, it seems everyone has their own opinion on what this unprecedented departure rate will mean for New Zealand's domestic and international rugby future.
There is little doubt the landscape has changed, but for an Australian watching on from a distance the natural feeling is almost one of disregard: "the endless New Zealand production line will still roll on, the All Blacks will be fine."
And they probably will.
But there was one play over the weekend that perhaps underlined why some Kiwis are just a little bit concerned, and one that highlighted an excellent column from Sky Sports broadcaster Scotty 'Sumo' Stevenson a few weeks back.
Writing in the New Zealand Herald, Stevenson painted somewhat of a bleak picture for New Zealand, the commentator suggesting that without the country's "someone elses" the forever dominant All Blacks are at risk of losing their edge.
"If you believe the spin, there is nothing to worry about; it's the natural order of things - players come and players go and that's the end of the matter," Stevenson wrote. "New Zealand has a bottomless well of talent positively gushing out of the schoolboy system, and no shortage of players ready to commit long term to that ultimate dream of being an All Black. Ah, the Black Jersey! All hail the double-stitched glory!
"It's a wonderful dream. Only problem is, very few will make it a reality. What most will do is wake up, and make up the numbers. And those players, the ones who haul themselves around the country and leave their guts on the franchise and provincial paddocks, are the greatest asset rugby in New Zealand has. Without them, the competitive advantage of the All Blacks is eroded. The All Blacks owe their outstanding record as much to the players who don't make the side, as to those who wear that famous jersey in the test arena. All Blacks perform because if they don't, someone else will.
Tom Marshall of the Chiefs runs the ball © Getty Images
"So what happens when the 'someone elses' aren't there?"
The Chiefs' Tom Marshall is one of Stevenson's "someone elses". The 24-year-old utility will link with Laurie Fisher and Gloucester Rugby at the end of the season after spending three seasons with the Crusaders and two with the Chiefs. He's a former New Zealand Under-20 representative, and he's been a key part of Tasman's rise in the ITM Cup. But he was unlikely to crack the All Blacks. That's not a mark against the Auckland-born back, it's just a fact borne out of the quality of outside backs the country boasts - a fact that has also played a part in the far more discussed departures of Charles Piutau and Francis Saili.
Yet on Friday in Christchurch, Marshall produced the kind of simple play that often goes unnoticed; it's one that perfectly illustrates Stevenson's point. Returning the ball after a Crusaders clearance, Marshall charged back at the defence and drifted on a wonderful little arc before popping a superb switch pass for Tim Nanai-Williams. It was the kind of training paddock drill every side rehearses, yet it was executed so perfectly that it drew in four Crusaders defenders. When Nanai-Williams offloaded to Liam Squire moments later, the Chiefs had their third try; one that belonged entirely to Marshall. Gloucester have themselves a good one.
Now no-one can begrudge Marshall's decision to leave; the money one offer was likely too good to refuse while the chance to experience life in another country, and travel Europe as you please, is a dream in itself. But the fact that one of New Zealand's most talented "someone elses" will be plying his trade outside the New Zealand rugby factory, and not imparting his wisdom and skill on the far less glamorous fields of the ITM Cup, is what concerns Stevenson and a few other shrewd New Zealand pundits.
It won't result in a catastrophic downward spiral for the All Blacks, nor will the country stop producing a share of the world's top emerging talent. But with the likes of Marshall opting to head offshore just a little bit earlier than in years past, the country's rugby IQ may just begin to drop ever so slightly.
New Zealand's playing depth has long been the envy of every other rugby playing nation on the planet but the global contracting shift is here and "someone elses" could soon be in short supply.
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