Over the last week a few more big names have been announced as making the post-world cup move from the southern hemisphere to the northern hemisphere. These signings follow a raft of fellow southern hemisphere stars that are looking to ply their trade in Europe. However, the latest signings, notably Francis Saili and Charles Piutau, include some promising young talent that was destined to become integral members of the All Blacks. With these moves people in the southern hemisphere have begun to question why they would move so young and spurn the opportunity to play international rugby, and whether this is setting a new trend reflecting changing attitudes to international rugby. Are these moves for money, with the risk of injury greater than ever, which would mean that the game is taking a turn to prioritising the club game over the international game, or are people simply reading into these two signings too much?
Firstly it is more than understandable that some players have chosen to move to the Northern Hemisphere having been servants of their national side, seeking a change of scenery and a new experience in the last phases of their careers. Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu have been one of the most devastating centre combinations in world rugby for the last five years and join Pau and Toulon respectively. Another example is Dan Carter, whose career has been plagued by injury, but he has still managed to score the most Test Points, play 100 times for the All Blacks and become one of the greatest players in history and has earned not only a healthy pay cheque at Racing but the opportunity to face a new challenge in Europe, though he played a season for Perpignan the move was injury-plagued and never going to be a permanent move away from New Zealand and the All Blacks.
In contrast the announcement that Francis Saili, the 24 year-old centre, and Charles Piutau, the 23-year-old centre and winger, both at the Auckland Blues were joining the Pro12, signing for Munster and Ulster respectively seemed to set a different trend to that of the old guard moving to the Northern Hemisphere. Saili has two caps for the All Blacks, Piutau 14 alongside his 4 tries for the current World Champions. The transfers are interesting in themselves, both are promising stars destined for many more All Blacks caps, as the next generation following the departures of the likes of Smith, Nonu and Carter. A comment on the Manawatu Standard‘s website claimed that ‘Piutau being lured overseas represents a new, worrying possibility: a young up-and-comer tipped for a stellar All Blacks career risking such a legacy to chase the vast gold at the end of global rugby’s rainbow’, as he has purportedly accepted a $2 million two-year deal.
The article goes on to accept that such a pay cheque cannot be neglected when Piutau has a family to support and given the brutal nature of rugby, in which any game could be your last it is totally understandable. This is nothing new one of the most notable instances was when Nick ‘the Honey Badger’ Cummins moved to the Coca Cola West Red Sparks in Japan to help support his family. In fact could we be seeing a greater awareness of life after rugby. This year has seen the risk of concussion come to the fore, a worry that is likely to affect players later in life rather than immediately and something that is now taken more seriously and is ending many more careers prematurely. This would make big money moves all the more enticing as no player can guarantee when they will play their last game, and there is only so much planning they can do for life after rugby, when many players will still have families to support. However, whether concussion has affected this will only be known in a few years when the risks and methods of prevention are fully known. However, money is always going to be a motive and rightly so in most cases, with players considering life after rugby as well as their family. In fact playing one of the most dangerous and brutal sports in the world in which players sacrifice so much from such a young age one would even argue it is highly justified for players to seek monetary recognition of this. Yet the point is many players do this butusually at the end of a glittering career, such as the likes of Carter, Nonu and Smith.
Interestingly the Standard’s article raises similar questions to those faced in England. Should rules stipulate that to play for the All Blacks, as for England, you must play club rugby in that country? Would a relaxing of this rule lead to an exodus of international stars for pay cheques elsewhere?
It is interesting to see that this is the same issue as England fans have been rumbling over for the last few years over the case of Steffon Armitage. However, the All Blacks in the past have been firm. Jerome Kaino, one of the best flankers in world rugby, did not represent New Zealand at all when he went to play in Japan. Arguably there is a bigger case for a relaxing of the same rule in Australia where they have been without some of their top stars for years, the likes of Dean Mumm and most notably Matt Giteau, arguably one of the best players in the world not playing international rugby. Yet, there is also the counter argument of France, who have taken to selecting French-qualified players of foreign birth, such as Scott Spedding and Rory Kockott, and their current national side is in disarray, though this is as much down to inept coaching as anything else!
The fear in New Zealand is that the departure of Saili and Piutau marks a new trend. That of the next generation of All Blacks leaving and spurning the opportunity to play international rugby for money but is there nothing new to this or has it been something that has happened for years? Carl Hayman moved to Newcastle in 2007 at the age of 28 and Nick Evans moved to Harlequins that year at the age of 27, both from the Highlanders. Neither were at the end of their international careers and both would certainly have featured in the 2011 World cup, especially given the call up of Stephen Donald to cover the fly half injury crisis. Still both were 4 or 5 years older than Saili and Piatau and were key members in the 2007 All Blacks world cup squad, Hayman as the starting tight-head prop and Evans the understudy to Dan Carter.
In fact what is most alarming is this claim that there is now a trend of young talent leaving New Zealand, that was earmarked as the next generation of All Blacks. The cases of Saili and Piatau are only two examples, maybe Frank Halai is another but beyond that there are few more. At the same time the New Zealand U20s squad will produce more and more talent every year that is just as good and won’t even get a look in for the All Blacks. In fact the likes of Gareth Anscombe and Tyler Bleyendaal, shone at Under 20 level and were deemed as future All Blacks, but both have since moved to the Pro12 for Cardiff Blues and Munster respectively with far less uproar back home.
What must also be remembered is both Piutau and Saili have signed 2 year contracts. That means they would be free to return to Super Rugby with ample time before the 2019 World Cup, with the experience of Northern Hemisphere rugby and the life experience of having to adapt to a whole new culture as the star signing in a team, rather than one of a number of stars. In fact as the Manawatu Standard notes criticism over their moves smacks of arrogance implying they are joining inferior leagues. This season’s Champions’ Cup has possibly been the most competitive and toughest club competition in the world, and the addition of players such as Saili and Piatau to the Irish provinces, as well as Will Genia, James Horwill and Frank Halai to other European squads will only make the tournament an even tougher more hard fought contest. The fact that Brad Thorn has even claimed winning the Heineken cup was his greatest sporting achievement, a man who has literally won everything in international rugby, in league and union, simply affirms the calibre of the European competition.
After all this fuss is the media really making a mountain out of a mole hill? Saili and Piatau, two gifted rugby players, have decided to turn their back on representing their country to test themselves with another experience in a new league for whatever personal reasons they have. Undoubtedly the experience will make them better players and better people. Look at James Haskell, after the 2011 World Cup he took on the experience of rugby in Japan and New Zealand before returning to Wasps, where he is now playing the best rugby he has ever played and is a far better player than he was before that world tour. Whether Saili and Piatau have set a trend will have to be seen but either way if other players do the same on a two year contract many of them will return to play international rugby far better from their experience. Hosea Gear, having played Toulouse has returned to Super Rugby this season, as has Sonny Bill Williams, back from his stint playing rugby league. In fact it could aid international strength in depth as new players will come in to fill Saili and Piatau’s boots. So rather than criticise or throw your arms up in shock why not wish Saili and Piatau luck in a brave decision to turn their back on the easy path for a far tougher more interesting one.