27 Jan 2021

'There has to be a reset': Call for rugby to take a step back

8:50 am on 27 January 2021

There has been a call for New Zealand Rugby to take a step back and revert to a more amateur game.

Auckland club rugby game between Suburbs and East Tamaki.

Auckland club rugby Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The game enters 2021 in a state of flux because of the Covid-19 pandemic with suggestions that now is the time to reshape the sport.

The Heartland Championship wasn't played in 2020 because of the pandemic and details are yet to be released about how provincial rugby may look this year.

Former All Blacks assistant and Wallabies coach Robbie Deans is one who wants to see more of an emphasis on amateurism.

"There has to be a reset, that much is very evident and in many ways the Covid pandemic has offered the game that possibility of a reset."

"I think it's going to be very important because all the nations are facing the same challenges domestically."

"Professionalism is very young, it's only been here for 25 years (since 1996) and I think we're still learning and New Zealand and Australia are both precarious and if we don't take care of our domestic game it will compromise the future."

As a Canterbury legend, Deans main concern is with New Zealand, especially those coming through the game.

"There has to be a pathway for a New Zealander to play the game, but how much of that pathway is professional is the question."

The Mitre 10 Cup for the top 14 provinces did make the field last year, but the structure of that competition is also being reviewed as New Zealand Rugby continues to look for ways to cut costs.

A provincial rugby player in the Mitre 10 Cup could earn between $10,000 and $50,000, while the lowest Super Rugby contract is worth $75,000.

That's something Deans, who has been coaching in Japan for the past eight years, feels has to change.

"Players get a taste (of money) and you actually become authors of your own demise because you give them a taste of earning from the game, they like that and they chase it."

Robbie Deans during the Super Rugby match between the Crusaders and the Brumbies, Christchurch, 2017.

Robbie Deans Photo: PHOTOSPORT

He admits that there will be no quick fix and a lot of thought needs to go into it, however he does wonder if administrators are too focussed on the top end and their desire to over pay players to keep them in New Zealand.

"You will always have your top end, but that number should be less than what New Zealand Rugby is trying to fund currently because you just can't sustain a competitive model if you're going to try and compete with the markets that are off-shore."

"We can produce rugby players and they can still be relevant in our nation."

Deans says there should be a bigger amateur involvement in the pathways.

"You can't fund kids straight out of school to the extent which we are when they're not ready and New Zealand should learn from where Australia was ten years ago when I was there, they were trying to compete with the other codes for players."

"They (Australia) starting paying salaries to match league players and they overpaid their playing group basically and they couldn't sustain it."

"They paid players at club level which meant players arrived with their hands out asking what's in it for me."

Deans says the amateur game has so much to offer.

"If you give you get and that's what makes rugby unique in my opinion its a place where you can go to learn life skills, make connections and we've got to get back to that."

"It hasn't gone there are still a lot of passionate people in the game at that level but we have to make sure we don't disenfranchise those people and their enthusiasm wanes."

Luke Campbell of Bay of Plenty scores a try.

Mitre 10 Cup Bay of Plenty against Otago Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The Covid-19 pandemic has given the sport a chance to reset.

"As is often the way a crisis becomes an opportunity, some tough decisions will have to be made and a show of leadership, but I think its a defining moment for the game both domestically and globally."

He says the two main focus groups are the players and the spectators.

"You need to provide something that appeals for both of those groups, ultimately the game is judged by the experience those parties have and is it meaningful for the participants and get away from this mindset that it's all about profit and loss."

Deans says something can be learnt from the game in Japan where the model is based more on corporate administration rather than rugby administration.

He went to Japan after his stint with the Wallabies finished and has coached the Panasonic Wild Knights to three titles.

"50 percent of the playing group are amateur so they're actually preparing for life after rugby and so that provides a great balance within the group."

"It highlights that fact that a career is short and players need to be thinking about life after the game and those that have an interest beyond the game actually cope better when it gets difficult."