All Blacks look to plug talent drain

New Zealand Rugby is set to consider selecting overseas-based players for the All Blacks, tax breaks, and privately-funded contracts among other ideas in attempts to find a solution to plugging its player drain.

A report in New Zealand’s Herald On Sunday at the weekend revealed that the country’s governing body for the game is set to host a summit with stakeholders including agents to address increasing concerns around keeping players at home in the face of greater financial incentives from Northern Hemisphere clubs.

Player retention has long been a challenge for NZR as European and Japanese clubs plunder Kiwi resources, from All Blacks squad members through its five Super Rugby franchises and even, according to NZR chief executive Steve Tew in a recent interview with London’s Daily Telegraph, to schools athletes as young as 15.

At the top end of the player chain, the Herald’s report suggests elite All Blacks such as captain Kieran Reed and Beauden Barrett are the top earners with annual salary packages in excess of NZ$1 million (€590,000) and are not likely to join the exodus. 

Yet the recent decisions of squad members such Lima Sopoaga to join Wasps next season and Bordeaux-bound Seta Tamanivalu have underlined the vulnerability of Steve Hansen’s wider squad to the lure of big contracts overseas, even just 18 months out from the next World Cup in Japan.

NZR’s summit will come against a backdrop of increasing broadcast revenues in France’s Top14 and a likely rise in the English salary cap from £7m (€7.8m) per club per season to £12 (€13.5m).

Which is why the involvement of agents in the NZR working group is seen as key to gleaning a more candid assessment of the thoughts of their clients, the players, than is perhaps provided directly through official channels.

Among the suggested solutions reportedly on the table at the summit are the introduction of tax breaks similar to those currently available for players in Ireland, France and the UK; private investment funding player contracts; widening the retainer system to include payments for fringe players attending All Blacks camps; and the relaxing of NZR policy regarding the selection of overseas players for the All Blacks.

It may sound counter-intuitive that the latter measure could help player retention in New Zealand but the theory is that having the ability to select offshore All Blacks will make them less attractive to foreign clubs used to having the monopoly on their availability during international windows when their homegrown players are called into Test squads.

Private investors are not a new idea when it comes to funding player contracts. In Ireland, the IRFU’s bid to bring Johnny Sexton home from Top14 club Racing Metro in 2014 was aided by a commercial deal the fly-half struck with billionaire businessman Denis O’Brien and NZR is to discuss this model to help fund its player retention.

Yet it is the concept of tax concessions for players that appears to be most attractive, with the governing body seen to be at a serious disadvantage to the rest of world rugby in this regard.

The Herald’s report cites Ireland’s system whereby sportspersons can claim tax relief of 40% on their 10 highest-earning years as professional athletes if they retire within the EU, while there are image rights tax breaks for players in both the Premiership and Top14, all of which make salary packages even more attractive than at home in New Zealand.

Clearly there is much for those attending the NZR summit to discuss although the report suggests those in the governing body have not yet reached panic stations on the issue of player retention.

Certainly results on the field for Steve Hansen’s world champions do not suggest the All Blacks are in crisis as sights are turned on a historic third World Cup success in row 18 months from now. 

Yet while the discussions continue and solutions are pored over, their relative merits analysed at length, there will be the nagging awareness that European and Japanese clubs continue to circle around their country’s greatest sporting resources.


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