The ideal shape of the structure of rugby in New Zealand would resemble a big bulky prop. Thick legs would represent the large numbers of junior players, bulky thighs would symbolise the strength of the game at an amateur level. The girth, upper body and shoulders of the prop would be those playing the game at club representative, provincial and franchise level. At the top you’d have a small bald head, which would be the players at the absolute elite level, the All Blacks. The player as a whole would be strong and durable, able to run all day.
Bear with me on this analogy, but rugby in New Zealand at the moment looks more like an older incarnation of Tana Umaga. Looks impressive, still undoubtedly world class, but the body, especially around the legs, is brittle. Up top there is a full head of dreadlocked hair, and it looks fearsome, if a little flashy, when he runs. In fact, whenever people look at Tana, the hair is the first, and mostly the only thing they see.
Rugby in New Zealand has become far too focused on the dreadlocks, the very top of the game. Not just professional players in general, or on the wider All Blacks setup, but on the few elite All Blacks that dominate the team. There are a number of pieces of evidence that support this claim. Across all levels of rugby except the absolute very top, the game is less than healthy, and is struggling to maintain a position of primacy. Resources are overwhelmingly being directed to the top, to the detriment of the wider sport.
The rewards for being in the elite group at the top are certainly compelling. For those at the very top, a yearly income of more than $1million is possible. Great news for those few at the top, but is a raise for those players the best way for the NZRU to spend their money? This comes at a time when the salary caps of Air New Zealand Cup teams are being reduced, as well as the salaries for leading provincial players. Domestic rugby is essentially taking a pay cut to supplement the income of star players.
Some will argue that it is necessary to pay those elite players more in order to keep them in the country. Already though we are seeing a trend towards sabbaticals for top players, where they are paid to play overseas. Bear in mind as well that only a few really benefit get the benefit of big endorsement deals. For every Dan Carter in his underwear on a billboard there are ten All Blacks, and a hundred professional players, who will never get a big endorsement deal. The second and third tier of players are also increasingly leaving New Zealand rugby in order to make serious money in Europe and Japan. These raises for the top players create the impression that the top players as individuals are considered to be more important than the All Blacks as an institution, a ludicrous prospect given the lack of depth that will be shown up if some of that elite bunch get injured.
It is reminiscent of the trends of inequality that has occurred in New Zealand over the last few decades. Those at the very top have seen their incomes rise dramatically, those at the bottom and in the middle have seen their incomes stagnate. The country as a whole is less healthy as a result. If sport is a microcosm of the wider world, then the NZRU should recognise that they shouldn’t be throwing money at the top and expecting their investment to trickle down. Rather, they should be taking that money and investing it in grassroots programmes, in keeping the Air New Zealand Cup viable. Hell, maybe they should even consider making tickets cheaper for children to go and watch a game of rugby. Otherwise the top heavy approach of rugby will cause it to overbalance and fall over, and nobody will have any reason to pick it back up again.