3 Jun 2021

Bidwell: Devon Conway and the future of franchise sport

2:49 pm on 3 June 2021

Opinion - I had to explain to my cricket-loving son who Devon Conway was, on Thursday morning.

Just as, in turn, I had to break the news to him that New Zealand and England were playing test cricket at Lord's.

Devon Conway, Black Cap.

Devon Conway. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Conway, the New Zealand-qualified South African, scored a test hundred on debut, opening the batting for the Black Caps on day one of their two-test series in England.

I'll linger on the cricket for a moment, before turning to the broader question about the future of franchise and international sport.

Good on New Zealand Cricket (NZC) for signing their broadcast-rights agreement with Spark Sport. You hope the two parties are getting along famously and the cheques are clearing every month.

But in throwing their lot in with the streaming service, NZC have diminished their audience enormously.

Sure, they may be being paid handsomely at the moment, but what are the potential long-term issues that come with being invisible to a huge portion of the population?

Out of sight means out of mind and if a generation of aspiring Black Caps - such as my boy - don't know the team is playing and who's in the XI, then what does that do to your pathway?

Mind you, we can all be excused for ignoring this test series.

New Zealand's premier fast bowler Trent Boult isn't playing and nor are half of England's star players.

They're all "recovering" from the truncated Indian Premier League Twenty20 tournament and saving themselves for more consequential games to come.

New Zealand have their World Test Championship clash with India, while England have series against India and Australia that they're priming their best blokes for.

Trent Boult of Mumbai Indians

Trent Boult plays for the Mumbai Indians team in the Indian Premier League. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

For generations of New Zealand players and fans, a tour to England was the pinnacle. Now it's just a nuisance, to be fit in around a player's freelance work.

Barely a murmur of dissent has been uttered here or in England, which brings me to my broader point.

Franchise or club sport is where the money and prestige increasingly lie. Be it football or basketball or now cricket, the international game is becoming an afterthought.

There's no debate about whether club or country comes first. The IPL, for instance, offers the big bucks and the players now prioritise that accordingly.

That's fine, but fans aren't fools. They can spot an inferior product, as this Black Caps series is, from a mile away and will treat it accordingly.

But what happens when rugby goes down this road, when a private equity company or a billionaire decides they want the best footy players in the world appearing in one league?

Whether it's existing teams, or newly made ones, we will eventually see the game's brightest stars in the same competition.

Beauden Barrett during his official presentation as new player of Suntory Sungoliath in Tokyo, Japan.

Beauden Barrett during his official presentation as new player of Suntory Sungoliath in Tokyo, Japan, 2021. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

And when that happens, playing for the All Blacks will be as inconsequential as it is to tour England as a New Zealand cricketer.

Some of Europe's biggest football clubs tried to launch a breakaway competition recently, while the world's top golfers are being pursued by a Saudi-backed super league. Heck, way back in the 1970s, Kerry Packer was able to buy enough elite players to create World Series Cricket.

You can't say the rugby franchise model in this part of the globe isn't ripe for improvement or even exploitation.

Never mind fans being a bit lukewarm about Super Rugby Aotearoa and, particularly, its trans-Tasman successor. Even some of our leading players such as Brodie Retallick, Beauden Barrett and TJ Perenara prefer to play their franchise footy in Japan.

What's more, we're going to pick them for All Blacks duty from there too.

TJ Perenara playing for the NTT Red Hurricanes in japan, 2021.

TJ Perenara playing for the NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes in Japan, 2021. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

We've become conditioned to this stuff. To rotation and rest weeks and sabbaticals and, soon, selecting blokes on the strength of their performances with overseas clubs.

The curiosity for me is will we meekly accept players being unavailable for All Blacks duty - to prepare for or recover from their franchise footy - or will we kick up a stink?

The cricket thing astounds me. I'm amazed by how weak boards are and how they continually acquiesce to the wishes of players.

They'd far rather diminish their own product and culture and tradition than risk some IPL player making themselves unavailable for international matches. Far better to let them pick and choose when they want to play, than bypassing these games completely.

I'm pleased for Devon Conway. It takes all sorts of attributes to leave your native country and try to crack the test ranks in another.

I'd probably prefer to see him bat five for New Zealand - then four when Ross Taylor retires - but a spot existed at the top of the order and he's filled it well on this occasion.

But when the home team opts to rest their IPL stars and says tests against India and Australia are much more significant, then the shine is somewhat taken off Conway's achievement.

Cricket has prioritised the franchise format and you wonder how long it can be until rugby finds the right vehicle to follow suit.

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