Changing of the guard?
February 22, 2010
Is Danny Cipriani the first of many? © Getty Images
Confirmation of Danny Cipriani's move to the Melbourne Rebels for the start of the Super 15 in 2011, along with the news that another former England fly-half, Andy Goode, had signed with South African side the Sharks for the Australasian leg of their 2010 season, got me thinking.
There have been relatively few European players who have ventured south of the Equator since the introduction of professional rugby in 1996. The news of two signings in one week may not seem all that significant, a trickle rather than a flood clearly, but Cipriani's signing could turn out to be hugely significant and will be watched with interest.
Foreigners in New Zealand rugby are a rare sight and have not really excited the interest of the average punter. Christian Califano, that wonderful prop from Toulouse, had a couple of seasons with Auckland and the Blues after his French Test career was over. I remember coming across him in a tourist shop in the far north of New Zealand, young family in tow, and he was clearly enjoying the opportunities away from the pressures of rugby in the twilight of his career.
At about the same time, another prop, Englishman Kevin Yates, getting as far away as possible from some disciplinary issues in the UK , spent a couple of productive seasons in the nation's capital, turning out and creating an impression with both the Wellington NPC side and the Hurricanes.
Scottish fly-half Gregor Townsend had a season or two with the Sharks at the end of his career and Freddie Michalak made the trek to South Africa last year, only to be cut down by injury.
Concerns about the flood of players leaving New Zealand for more lucrative northern pastures are well-documented and well-illustrated by the news of the latest émigré to leave our shores: Thomas Waldrom, who is leaving Hawke's Bay and the Crusaders for a contract with the Leicester Tigers. Waldrom was probably never going to make it into the All Blacks, and that was undoubtedly part of his calculation, but the Tigers have made a wonderful acquisition. One which further depletes the depth of New Zealand playing resources.
The likes of Jerry Collins are clearly not camped in Swansea so they can enjoy the scenery around Port Talbot or expose themselves to the wonders of the Welsh male voice choir. No, they are there for the pound, or the euro. Others, like Riki Flutey or Shontayne Hape, have additionally opened up a Test career for themselves, where previously there was no prospect of such.
For those very obvious financial reasons the attractions of playing in New Zealand, or Australia or South Africa, are diminished for the young, ambitious British or French rugby professional. And it would be difficult to see, at present, how it would be possible for the likes of Cipriani to combine a Super Rugby career and a place in the England Six Nations squad. Although, a world rugby season, with synchronised club and Test windows could change all that.
Which is why Cipriani's case is so interesting. The Rebels have obviously made him a sufficiently attractive financial offer for him to make the move to Melbourne but in explaining and justifying his decision it is clear he has already signalled his intention to return to Europe at some stage.
Cipriani's England caps may rule him out as a future Wallaby but I wouldn't mind betting that the Australian Rugby Union are ready to tap into the northern hemisphere talent pool in the hope of discovering a future international star. Just as they did with Clyde Rathbone, a product of South Africa who played for the Wallabies before injury ended his career.
Union is very much the poor cousin among Australian football codes: league, rules and soccer all get a bigger following, but they still have more financial clout than the New Zealand rugby franchises. There has been talk of the New Zealand Rugby Union loosening their controls over the five Super rugby franchises and inviting commercial interests to bear the brunt of the costs and, of course, any profits.
Were that to happen, and were New Zealand to become a more lucrative rugby market, may we not look back on the signing of Danny Cipriani as the beginning of the reversal of the Australasian player drain? What would the odds then be on promising 22-year-old from the East Midlands or the Swansea Valley plying his trade in New Zealand and in the process qualifying as an All Black? I cannot imagine the average Kiwi fan taking to that idea, but it is something that Europeans have had foisted on them by financial imperatives.