What if the All Blacks are ruining rugby in New Zealand? A strange question I know but the more I watch Super Rugby and see the on-going under performance of many contracted All Blacks the more I am convincing myself that long-term All Black contracts are the bane of Super Rugby.
It is a cliche that it harder to get out of the All Blacks than to get into the team and this is even more so now that they are increasingly first and foremost a branding opportunity for the NZRFU. Yet what eventuates is a situation whereby many long-term contracted All Blacks appear to play with a focus on the international calendar to the detriment of their super rugby team. Yet can one really blame them? They play in the expectation that they will most probably get picked for the All Black squad and continue to receive their All Black contract as the NZRFU has too much invested in the branding opportunities of a totem pole of signature players. So they play wary of injuries and the fabled
burn-out', they play looking first and foremost to peak for the internationals. Yet this means the fans who go each week to watch them play for their franchises get an under-performing 'product'; it means the team-mates of these players have play with deliberately self-limiting players.
The issue is not one that is going to go away when there is a dual tier professional rugby system whereby the All Blacks are on a contract system to keep them playing in the country and operating as the brand-focus of the NZRFU. As I have argued, we need a truly professional system that allows the free exchange of location of players. You could argue that the NZRFU is merely protecting its product investment by requiring All Blacks to stay and play within NZ- and the long-term contracts are a way to ensure that players do stay here. Yet perhaps we play too many internationals against the same teams. The tri-nations was dreadfully stale and while the addition of Argentina has brightened it considerably we get an overdose of relentless hyperbolic nationalism that is really just product marketing. These are not really teams chosen on who has been playing the best in the competition of super rugby, they are instead teams chosen in the main even before the super rugby season starts.
Perhaps I am just over the saturation of commodified nationalism; perhaps I am tired of seeing under performing 'international' players; perhaps I just want to see the best-performing players, week-in and week-out at super rugby level rewarded with the chance to play an international against the best performers from elsewhere. Perhaps I just want to see less but more meaningful international rugby matches.
If the All Blacks really are ruining NZ rugby- a different thing from the brand of NZ rugby- then perhaps we need to rethink what the All Blacks really mean - and represent.