Isa Nacewa: Rugby’s new generation see value in chasing financial rewards

As New Zealand rugby feels talent drain to the north, Ronan O’Gara is embraced down south

Crusaders  assistant coach Ronan O’Gara  reacts as Ereatari Enari scores a try during a  training session at Rugby Park in Christchurch, New Zealand, this week. Photograph: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images

Crusaders assistant coach Ronan O’Gara reacts as Ereatari Enari scores a try during a training session at Rugby Park in Christchurch, New Zealand, this week. Photograph: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images

 

Millennials, we can’t live without them. New Zealand rugby is figuring this out the hard way. Generation Y know their worth better than any previous crop of Kiwi players.

We, the older folk, mostly see and hear bad attitudes but some day they will inherit the earth, and our perception of them will no longer matter.

These days I bump into former All Blacks on the school run. Steven Bates, who works for Sky Sports, lives near us and has kids in the same school as our twins, Mia and Ellie. Inevitably, we get yapping about you know what.

Less Super Rugby, more Six Nations. One product is so obviously superior to the other. The bonus-point system has taken the Six Nations to another level of entertainment. There is also the sight of mostly packed stadiums. The crowds only come out in New Zealand for one team.

Not even the Blues versus Crusaders came anywhere close to filling Eden Park recently. If Rieko Ioane, Ma’a Nonu and Sonny Bill Williams squaring up to the champions cannot click the turnstiles then there are serious problems in the marketing department.

A far more worrying yet related trend is player drain to Japan and Europe before young talent reaches a Super Rugby squad, never mind the All Blacks radar. These kids know their worth, see. I’m not talking about the loss of guys like Bundee Aki or Charles Piutau, who departed on the cusp of reaching their full potential. Now it’s players a level below who are moving offshore. After being spotted in the Mitre 10 (NZ’s provincial comp) they’re, like, “sayonara.”

Bates played most of his career in Japan so he knows the scene. He says it’s more enticing than ever. If you are not going to be a regular All Black, why stick around when your wages can be tripled overnight?

Millennials are different to 30-somethings. Different values. They want everything right now. Their lives are about the immediate, they seek instant gratitude, instant reward. Play well in Mitre 10 and get a Super Rugby contract that gives you a good standard of living, or go to Japan and be able to buy a house in New Zealand for when you return in five, even 10 years?

It’s not even a decision for most of them.

They really are different to us (by us, I’m guessing you bought the newspaper this morning). The global recession was background noise to them. When they see an opportunity on social media they can reach out and grab it. They make decisions for themselves, in the here and now.

Players like Bundee and Piutau paved the way.

The game is changing with talent moving north at a quicker rate than when I left Auckland in 2007.

There are some constants. It’s still early days but the Canterbury Crusaders remain the team to beat. Scott Barrett, the youngest and biggest brother, has been a standout performer.

I’m only hearing positives from players and coaches who have crossed paths with Ronan O’Gara. I know the Crusaders are loving his attitude. That plain speaking way of his goes a long way in any rugby environment and by maintaining his player standards – and grumpiness – he has only endeared himself to Kiwis.

Doug Howlett keeps a close eye on Cork’s hurlers during their National League game with Limerick at the Gaelic Grounds. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
Doug Howlett keeps a close eye on Cork’s hurlers during their National League game with Limerick at the Gaelic Grounds. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

Every week Scott Robertson seems to be giving him an extra say in their attacking strategy. That Rog is running the best backline down in New Zealand and Doug Howlett is well placed to revolutionise Cork hurling did not pass unnoticed! Dougie’s curious new role made the front page of the NZ Herald sports section. Shouldn’t it be the other way round?

Howlett is a legend, still the All Blacks record try-scorer, so he would be scooped up in no time by one of the major franchises down here. But home for the Howlett clan is Cork and the Rebels have tapped into a natural-born winner.

That the Howletts and O’Garas are close family friends makes for a unique case of sporting cross-pollination.

Same goes for Canterbury seeing the rare opportunity to tap into Rog’s brain, that know-how to win the dirty, cup rugby battles. He’s dovetailed with Robertson. Who knows where it will lead? Steve Hansen has 99 tests as All Blacks coach. Like Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt, we know he rides into the sunset after the World Cup. Robertson may become the ideal fit for the top job in 2020. He has certainly proved himself capable as a head coach. He is different, very different to our traditional model but don’t forget those millennials.

Scott’s CV carries him right through the Canterbury system and New Zealand under-20s, so this generation of talent are accustomed to his out of the box, left field, call it what you will, break-dancing style of cool-headed leadership.

Maybe that’s what the ABs need next. Hard to argue after what we are seeing from his Crusaders. They look an unstoppable force.

We all know that never lasts. As Steve Hansen’s men learned in November – remember, they almost ran out of rope at Twickenham. Now Ireland are searching for that second wind.

No team can ride the wave forever. You either wipe out or reach the beach.

That said, I watched the England game in disbelief. It’s been a long, long time since any Irish team has been out-muscled.

What southern hemisphere coaches are seeing from this Six Nations is the defensive line speed coupled with loose refereeing of the offside rule. There’s a clear pattern, a trend for 2019 that sees defences shutting down certain attacking elements.

England and now Wales are ahead of the curve so New Zealand, South Africa and the rest will need to catch up.

Ireland under Schmidt tend to grow into most Six Nations so I’d expect some flowing attacking play against France.

The challenge now for every side, Ireland especially, is how to find a route around the all enveloping defence. You must be taking possession on the run to have any chance of winning the collision and you need to lay a marker from the first carry.

The kick-pass has long been a weapon for Johnny Sexton (Ross Byrne is the real expert) and Beauden Barrett, with Dan Biggar’s clever boot deciding last weekend’s main event.

Another way is the grubber (see how England picked France apart). Nonu turned it into an art form up until the 2015 World Cup. The beauty of this skill is it forces defenders to check their speed. The grubber should be in the arsenal of every back playing test rugby.

I’m not worried about Ireland. They remain World Cup contenders.

That’s partly the problem. Everyone critiques them on a level that is associated with being the best. The Leinster boys are coping with the same problem. They’ll figure it out. The masterplan remains set.

Wales, in contrast, could sneak up on 12 wins in a row playing percentage rugby. All you have to do is win.

England looked unbeatable in Dublin but when Maro Itoje and Mako Vunipola were removed the Welsh were able to handle the physicality.

There will be more injuries than ever before this season is out. The secret to winning a World Cup is the collective performance must not dip when one man replaces another. We know Joe has done everything in his and the IRFU’s power to avoid running out of quality in each position. Look at the merry-go-round at openside. Dan Leavy was phenomenal last year, Josh van der Flier was so impressive when he came in, and now Seánie O’Brien is back.

For me, all of a sudden, real fears exist about France’s young crew of Ntamack, Ramos, Demba Bamba and Dupont. Scotland was the first team to encounter these future superstars performing past potential in a test match. There’s a mighty victory in the French that probably won’t come until the World Cup, but who knows?

Damn millennials are coming for us all. Soon they will rule the world.

Captain must get protection for his 10

Leinster’s Johnny Sexton feels the pain in last year’s Champions Cup quarter-final against Saracens. Photograph: Inpho/Tommy Dickson
Leinster’s Johnny Sexton feels the pain in last year’s Champions Cup quarter-final against Saracens. Photograph: Inpho/Tommy Dickson

It’s massively frustrating for Johnny Sexton, taking shots after releasing the ball. I can say with certainty that his captain plays a role in ensuring the television match official, the referee, and touch judges protect him.

When Johnny gets hit late, repeatedly, the skipper’s job is to initiate a firm conversation with the ref. It happened in the Saracens quarter-final last year at the Aviva. I was captain. Obviously they were targeting him – every player is fair game – but when George Kruis put a shoulder into his back while we played advantage for a shot by Mako Vunipola, again on Johnny, I had to intervene. The Kruis hit was the fourth such incident.

At the same time you don’t want to be annoying referees. There was 19 minutes on the clock and we were going well, but as Johnny lined up the penalty I calmly spoke to Jerome Garces, just to make sure he was aware of two illegal dunts happening seconds apart.

“Yeah we know,” Jerome responded. “I got a call from the assistant referee [for Vunipola hit] so we are in charge.”

I laboured the point, so Garces added: “We know.”

That was enough. Saracens also knew their chance to take him out had passed and Johnny punished them with three points.

It was the ideal outcome – Johnny gets up and ticks overs the scoreboard.

What happened in Murrayfield – although it gave Joey Carbery an extended run – was a little victory for the opposition. The responsibility lies with the TMO and officials. The captain – and not Johnny who will understandably be in a foul mood immediately after being roughed up – must raise the issue without it seeming like a whinge. There’s a fine line, but no better men than Rory Best and Peter O’Mahony to stay onside with refs.

It’s a recurring problem we will almost certainly see against the French. They always target him. The Ireland captain must get his retaliation in, verbally.

Henshaw a special number 12

Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw: a beast of a 12. Photograph: Inpho/Gary Carr
Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw: a beast of a 12. Photograph: Inpho/Gary Carr

I love the idea of Robbie Henshaw at fullback. It’s his natural position and he wants to play there but, sorry Robbie, from a coaching perspective second-five-eight is the slot. I could give numerous examples but go back to the Saracens match again. After being out for two months with shoulder damage he returned with an astonishing performance.

Bundee Aki ticks every box – he’s been superb for Ireland – but Henshaw is a once-in-a-generation player. Having tried to fill that hole myself for Leinster when Robbie was recovering last season, I have so much respect for how he plays with 12 on his back. Most importantly, he’s got the size. He’s hard as nails and just rock solid.

He’d probably prefer to play 15 or even 13, where he is also more than capable, but the selfish coach will sacrifice those options for what Robbie guarantees when running off Sexton’s shoulder. He’s just so combative, and is developing every little skill needed to play the position.

His return alone could provide the spark Ireland are missing at the moment. Alongside Garry Ringrose, the Irish attack should go to another level.

I think Joe Schmidt’s overriding intention is to get Robbie Henshaw on the field for Ireland’s defining games at the World Cup, maybe that’s why he needed to see him at 15, but 12 is his number.

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