LIAM NAPIER AND TOBY ROBSON IN ROME
All Blacks' coach Steve Hansen and captain Richie McCaw have urged
caution in the face of increased Super Rugby privatisation, strongly
stressing the need for the New Zealand Rugby Union to retain control of
New Zealand's new-age rugby landscape shifted further towards full
privatisation last week when investors bought large shares in the
Hurricanes and Crusaders.
The Blues and Chiefs - but not the Highlanders - are likely to follow suit by selling around half of their rights.
In exchange for their cash injections, wealthy private investors get
match-day gate-takings and marketing and sponsorship benefits.
But there are fears they will soon push for more privileges,
including control of the players, in what appears to be the start of a
new era in professionalism.
The risk is that players will be driven to exhaustion, as currently occurs in Europe and South Africa.
Under the current central contracting model the NZRU remains in charge of all players.
Hansen and McCaw have both warned against ever altering that system
and allowing wealthy backers too much power, fearing it could jeopardise
one of the All Blacks' greatest advantages over their rivals.
"Centralisation is one of our big advantages," Hansen told the Sunday Star-Times.
"We recognise it's one of our strengths. In business you'd be very silly to give away one of your strengths."
At present Hansen is able to work closely with all five New Zealand
Super Rugby coaches to ensure player workloads are carefully managed.
That avoids burnout and ensures key figures are consistently performing at their peak for the national team.
If private ownership is taken further and investors can dictate the
terms of a player's involvement, the foundations of the All Blacks'
success could be eroded.
That scenario is not far-fetched. Not so long ago, the prospect of a
sponsor's name on the front of the All Blacks jersey seemed improbable.
Eventually, an investor might make the franchises an offer they
can't refuse, at the cost of the right to control New Zealand rugby's
greatest asset - the players.
"We should never get into that situation and I don't think we ever will," Hansen said.
"It's a massive advantage to us and one that we should always keep,
regardless of who the coach is. We are working hard at the relationships
with Super Rugby coaches and hard on player welfare."
In Europe and South Africa, provinces hold all the power and the players are often physically driven until they drop.
After losing to the All Blacks in Soweto this year, Springboks
players were made to turn out for their Currie Cup teams while the New
Zealanders enjoyed a week's rest.
McCaw believes the balance of power is correct and he singled out
the ability of New Zealand's coaches to communicate in a constructive
fashion as fundamental to the All Blacks' success.
"The season is tough to manage at the best of times without having an outside influence," he said.
"We are lucky that the hierarchy is that the All Blacks are most
important to New Zealand rugby and it works down. That's the way it
should be and we are very lucky we have a balance and understanding
"The key is who is running the cutter. The coaches are going to want
the best out of their players. The clubs over here [in Europe] worry
just about what's happening and I guess that's what you get with private
"But the coaches [in New Zealand] understand they can't afford to
hammer guys if they want them right at the business end of the season.
"With test matches in between, they know unless they are managed
through that period they will end up with guys who are just buggered.
You might get away with it for one year, but the following year that's
when the cumulative [fatigue] comes in."