April 22, 2019 at 2:00 am

Rugby: All Blacks putting a new spin on old problem

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There‘s a spin war raging about the heat in the player transfer market and New Zealand Rugby‘s ability to keep the best players here.

Supposedly there has never been a time like this: the salaries being offered in the northern hemisphere have never previously been so much higher than the top payments in the south. The gap is allegedly getting wider.

On top of that, say those trying to create a negative picture, is this awakening among the younger generation that test football is not the ultimate means by which to define a career.

We are allegedly in a new world of instant gratification where young players will more readily and easily walk away from a black jersey than at any time in history.

Those complicit in trying to paint this picture of New Zealand Rugby standing with its finger in the dyke are doing so with a goal in mind.

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It would seem NZR is determined to mount a compelling argument that the All Blacks should receive some kind of government funding to help keep the national team as a world-class brand.

NZR sees player retention as its priority and believes it would have more success if it had more money to throw at individuals.

There is only so much NZR can extract from its broadcast contract and sponsors and the Government seems like the deepest pockets it can delve into in the never-ending search for more cash.

Highly-paid All Blacks asking for taxpayers‘ money is not an easy policy to sell, but if the story can be spun in a different direction — that the investment is about saving the national team from falling into the evil clutches of foreign club owners, then maybe it has some chance.

Clearly, the battle to retain the best players in New Zealand is a tough one. But it has always been tough and despite all the claims the game here is facing new dangers, it isn‘t.

The pay gap between the hemispheres isn‘t widening across the market. It is specifically becoming more attractive for those players just below the top tier to head to Europe perhaps two or three years earlier than New Zealand Rugby would like.

A player with a handful of test caps and four or five years Super Rugby experience can earn anything between $750,000 to $1 million a season in Europe these days, compared with about $250,000-$350,000 in New Zealand.

That‘s why the likes of Steven Luatua, Charles Piutau, Nehe Milner-Skudder and Lima Sopoaga took contracts to play in Europe when they were still in the infancy of their test careers. That sort of money to those sorts of players tips the balance in favour of leaving New Zealand, but it has been that way for an age.

And despite Sopoaga‘s endless commentaries since arriving in the UK about the weakening lure of the black jersey, throughout the professional age there have been varying degrees of commitment to it.

He‘s hardly the first peripheral All Black to pack his bags prematurely for Europe. Luke McAlister did it in 2007. So too did Carl Hayman, Aaron Mauger and Nick Evans in 2008.

It‘s not new for relatively young players to see that while they may have played test rugby — in some cases a considerable amount — that they may not play that much more.

In some cases (Evans) that was because of the presence of a rare talent such as Daniel Carter blocking his path, and others (Hayman) it was that he didn‘t like the scrutiny and intensity which came with the role.

Far from changing, the market is being driven by the same trends and patterns that it has been for the last 15 years. And while there has been an air of pessimism about the future direction of the player market, the facts speak much louder.

NZR has tied in the bulk of the players it will need to keep the All Blacks strong in 2020.

The key signings have been made — Ardie Savea, Joe Moody, Codie Taylor, Scott Barrett, Damian McKenzie, Rieko Ioane, Ngani Laumape, Anton Lienert-Brown and Richie Mo‘unga.

Others such as Sam Cane are thought to be close and while Beauden Barrett, Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock are likely to negotiate extended time off, they are expected to soon announce they are staying in New Zealand until 2023.

Having that group tied in doesn‘t feel like the world is about to cave in for NZR or that the black jersey has lost much, if any, of its allure.