18 Sep 2020

Bidwell: Who runs rugby in New Zealand?

11:56 am on 18 September 2020

Opinion - New Zealand Rugby and their players truly are the strangest of dance partners.

All Blacks player Codie Taylor during the 2nd Bledisloe Cup Rugby game. All Blacks v Australia. Auckland, New Zealand. Saturday 17 August 2019. ©Copyright Photo: Chris Symes / www.photosport.nz

The All Blacks will play Australia in two Bledisloe Cup tests in New Zealand before heading across the Tasman for the Rugby Championship. Photo: Photosport Ltd 2019

The continual tangle they get themselves into around fixtures and selections and availability is a sight to behold, so long as you subscribe to the theory that the All Blacks' jersey means something.

It's a brand that both NZR and the players exploit, often leaving the rest of us to feel confused and disenfranchised.

The All Blacks are playing some test rugby this year. We think.

The where, when and how has - or is - proving a little tricky, but the bottom line is they'll play. Yes, no health or logistical hurdle will stop the powers that be from staging international matches in 2020, otherwise they'll go broke.

It remains to be seen whether every All Black will be available for every test, but then that's all part of that complicated dance routine.

Players have always made themselves unavailable for games or tours. Whether it was due to work commitments or on compassionate grounds, religious and political beliefs or parental leave, opting out is not out of the ordinary.

Money's been at the root of most arguments in the professional era, though.

Where games were once few and far between, now they're plentiful. Where teams were once settled and squads small, now we have mass changes from week to week.

Where matches and series' were played for glory and trophies and legacies, now they're merely a mechanism to pay the bloated salaries of the players.

When, as the governing body, you stage games simply for revenue's sake and you endorse and encourage rotation and rest weeks, then you diminish the product. Not just in the minds of fans and broadcasters and sponsors, but the players too.

Give your highly paid employees every excuse not to participate and - guess what? - a few are going to take you up on it.

The players are hardly blameless, obviously. If their appetite for cash - and all the other trimmings that come with being a professional rugby player - was matched by their desire to actually play, then we wouldn't have such a big problem.

But our heroes, in concert with the players' association, are becoming increasingly specific about how many times they're prepared to play and train each year and at what intensity. How many media commitments they'll fulfill, how many promotional activities they'll attend, how many weeks in camp they'll cop and for how much coin.

Worst of all remains this idea of 'sabbaticals.' The chance to stay on your NZR money, but sit months or even entire years out, while some other dopes pay extra for the privilege of your services.

You hesitate to say NZR have become accustomed to begging their better players to stay under contract, but when you're having to incentivise their deals to this extent then you're hardly in a strong bargaining position.

New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson.

New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson. Photo: Photosport

Again, when these are the employment conditions, it's little wonder some blokes profess a reluctance to play.

Some people will say these players are under contract and should do as they're told. We don't tell our employers when we're prepared to work, and when we're not, so why should footy players?

Too bad if Super Rugby Aotearoa's a bit hard on the body, or if the 2020 test schedule comes with too many quarantine requirements. You're on massive money and you can sling your hook if you don't like it.

Unfortunately, it's all a bit late for that. New Zealand Rugby took the lead, in terms of trying to cash in on the All Blacks' brand, but now it's the players in control.

I'd be fascinated to know how people feel about the All Blacks now. How connected to the team they are and tied to the games and results.

I retain a professional interest and I have friends who care about the team and enjoy the matches. But, hand on heart, I genuinely wouldn't be bothered if I never saw the All Blacks play again.

Am I on my own here? Am I talking absolute rubbish? Is the relationship between NZR and its players actually incredibly healthy and the All Blacks as popular and relatable as ever before?

All I tend to see is a governing body who need money, a playing group who crave it and various contortions designed to create a mutually beneficial outcome.

It's almost become more of a spectacle than the game itself.

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