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Professional Rugby in New Zealand

Rory Milne



New Zealand Rugby is on the verge of losing its most crowd-pleasing and exciting Super 12 player, Rupeni Caucaunibuca. The Blues and Fijian winger seems likely to add to the player drain by heading to England to play for Newcastle. Former All Black Tony Brown has recently confirmed he will leave New Zealand rugby at the end of the year to take up a playing contract in Japan. Current All Black Caleb Ralph is reported to be in negotiations with Welsh rugby club the Celtic Warriors. If New Zealand Rugby loses these talented names, they will add to an already impressive list of former players, including former All Blacks Christian Cullen and Taine Randall. With so many top class players leaving this country to join overseas clubs it begs the question: Will New Zealand, with its limited resources and facilities, be able to keep up with the worldwide professionalism in rugby?
Caucaunibuca is paid a basic salary of $100,000 for his Super 12 and NPC duties for the Blues and Northland respectively (by the New Zealand Rugby Football Union [NZRFU]). This compares to an estimated $500,000 a year offered by Newcastle, who also faces competition from clubs in France and Japan, offering similar amounts. Caucaunibuca is reported to have requested extra payment from the NZRFU, however they refused. New Zealand rugby simply does not have the money to compete with money offered by overseas clubs. The loss of players of the calibre of Caucaunibuca can result in big economic losses for the NZRFU. Players like Caucaunibuca bring money to the game by attracting fans through the gates into games who come to see the “stars” live in action. Without the “big names” crowds reduce, as a result profits reduce. As a further result less money can be distributed by the NZRFU into areas vital to the development of rugby talent such as primary and secondary schools, and senior clubs throughout the country. Consequently, rugby talent diminishes.
Players are, and will continue to depart in search of greater financial security offered overseas. As a result, not only does New Zealand rugby lose considerable playing talent, experience and knowledge is also lost. For young, inexperienced players currently entering professional rugby, the importance of guidance from older, more experienced players such as Cullen and Randall cannot be underestimated. Instead, these former All Black stars are passing on their knowledge and experience to players in Ireland and England respectively, two All Black counterpart nations. Some players, who never represented the All Blacks, even went on to represent countries against the All Blacks: Tony Marsh for France, and John and Martin Leslie both for Scotland.
Ever since rugby turned professional in 1996, the dominance of world rugby has switched from New Zealand to Australia, and most recently England. The 1999 World Cup was won by Australia, while England took out the most recent World Cup. Australia dominated the Bledisloe Cup over New Zealand from 1998-2002 and New Zealand has lost its last two tests against England (a major rarity). It is of no consequence that the switch of domination occurred after rugby turned professional. Australia and England are of greater size, with a greater economy. They are suited to professionalism in sport. The 2003 Rugby World Cup final showcased these two teams in an epic final. It showed two countries who had superior playing talent, facilities and resources. Professionalism for these countries, has meant they are able to hold onto their players, while at the same time buying star players from other sporting codes, predominantely rugby league. On the night of the final, Australia possessed Lote Tuqiri and Wendell Sailor, while England held the world class talent of Jason Robinson. These players were all former rugby league stars, lured into rugby union mainly through money and played significant roles in the success of these two nations in last year’s World Cup.
England’s recent World Cup success could be seen to have stemmed from the advent of Professionalism in 1996. England has used professionalism to expand and advertise the game to its huge population, and as a result player numbers and public interest is increasing rapidly. In a recent study, it was found that England held 634,460 registered players, compared to New Zealand’s 131,000. This increase in the player numbers creates a greater pool of talent to choose from, and the success of teams increased. England has also used the increase in public interest to gain greater profits through gate sales at games and the selling of merchandise. Similarly, in Australia, professionalism in rugby has allowed the A.R.U to advertise the game of rugby union in areas dominated to other sporting codes such as “Aussie Rules”, soccer, and rugby League (i.e. in Melbourne, Victoria and Perth). Consequently, player numbers have rapidly increased (Australia holds more senior and teenage players than New Zealand) and profits have risen.
The evidence I have just mentioned would suggest New Zealand rugby is heading downwards while the larger countries more suited to professionalism become even greater. Recent form could suggest otherwise. The 2004 NZ Under-19 team are World Champions, and the All Blacks currently hold the Bledisloe Cup and Tri-Nations. The All Blacks are currently led by a brilliant All Black coaching trio of Graham Henry, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen. The future is in very good hands… major success is surely just around the corner.