Final Lap: New Zealand rugby set for change

Some big names are saying goodbye to New Zealand rugby after the World Cup. Is there life after Kieran, Sonny and the Steves? Kiwi journalist MARC HINTON asks in the latest issue of SA Rugby magazine.

It is the end of an era in New Zealand rugby. Once again. But the four-yearly cleanout of personnel that occurs after every World Cup seems set to have a much greater impact on the Kiwi game off the park than on it. Replacing Kieran Read and Sonny Bill Williams is one thing, filling the shoes of Steve Hansen and Steve Tew is something else altogether.

As is the way in the modern rugby world, the end of the World Cup cycle will see a number of exceptional All Blacks shuffle off around the globe to round out their stellar careers. Read is heading to Japan with his legend status assured, Williams somewhere too (at 34 his time with the All Blacks is assuredly done). Others of similar ilk are following suit.

Among Hansen’s squad in Japan chasing an unprecedented hat-trick of World Cup triumphs, fullback Ben Smith (to France, then Japan) and midfielder Ryan Crotty (Japan) are on their final laps of the Test track, while loose forward Matt Todd is also expected to bow out.

Two other prominent All Blacks who missed the cut for RWC, 108-Test prop Owen Franks (Northampton) and hard-nosed loose forward Liam Squire (Japan), have also confirmed their exit plans.

That’s a group of experienced and hardened campaigners who will be missed. But, truth be told, it’s a best-case scenario for New Zealand rugby. Read, Smith, Williams, Crotty and Franks are all in the final throes of their careers and the collective loss is nowhere near as comprehensive as post-2015 when the All Blacks saw legends Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu and Ben Franks depart.

And, let’s face it, the team has barely missed a trick in their absence. All Blacks come and go but the great New Zealand rugby production line continues to churn out the talent. McCaw scoots off to fly his helicopters and Ardie Savea emerges; Carter chases the big bucks with an array of sponsors around the globe and Beauden Barrett steps up. And so on.

For all the retention challenges that exist for the southern hemisphere heavyweights in the professional era, the Kiwi game has managed best to either retain or replace its departing stars.

In 2016 the All Blacks won 13 of their 14 Tests and in ’17 and ’18 they lost four times in 28 internationals. The greats come and they go, but New Zealand have managed to retain their winning edge over the past decade and more.

They do this by staying nimble and creative. World-class locks Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock seemed certain to be part of that talent drain, but both have been retained until the 2023 World Cup with the aid of major sabbatical clauses in their contracts. Whitelock will bypass the 2020 Super Rugby season to fulfil a short-term deal in Japan but will be available for the All Blacks later that year. He also has an early retirement clause should he need it.

Retallick’s new deal is even more flexible. He will play the 2020 and ’21 seasons in Japan (missing two Super Rugby campaigns) but will return in time to rejoin the national set-up for 2021. Both locks, who have nearly 200 Tests between them, understand the value in stepping away from the constant travel and grind of Super and Test rugby for a mental refresh.

The truth is New Zealand rugby has retained the experienced campaigners it really wanted to keep. Barrett is back for another four more years, with a move to the Blues, an extended post-World Cup break and a potential sabbatical written into his new deal; Sam Cane and Savea are signed through until 2021. Likewise Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara. Even veteran hooker Dane Coles is going nowhere until 2022 at the earliest.

And of course no one regenerates talent like the All Blacks. Rieko Ioane can’t get a run in the top lineup at this World Cup because George Bridge and Sevu Reece have emerged as rookie wings of the highest order. Richie Mo’unga is already well down the track as a No 10 of some calibre and there’s a host of youngsters watching the World Cup from New Zealand just waiting for their chance.

There will be some holes to fill. But not too many. Anton Lienert-Brown, Jack Goodhue and Ngani Laumape (desperately unlucky to miss the trip to Japan) remain to form the basis of the midfield for the next cycle, while the World Cup prop contingent returns en masse. Lock might be the one area where things are a bit light but don’t expect that to remain the case for long.

There will, however, be some concerns on the leadership front. If only because the men in the top two jobs in the New Zealand game step away with an inordinate amount of experience and intellectual property.

Hansen signs off after Japan having attended five World Cups as a coach. He has been part of the All Blacks set-up for 16 years, the first eight as an assistant under Sir Graham Henry and the last eight running the show. They have been highly successful years.

But he is adamant it is time for him to step away and for a new face to bring a fresh voice to this team that is constantly being challenged at the top of the game.

‘It’s about the team first and it’s right for the team to have someone new after this World Cup,’ Hansen said at the announcement of his departure post-RWC. ‘Some fresh eyes, fresh thinking … whether that’s within or outside, whoever the replacement is, it will be fresh. That will be great for the enhancement of the legacy of the jersey, and that’s the most important thing.

‘You’ve just got to trust the process and that NZ Rugby will do what’s right for the team. They’ll have all the information and will put the right person in place. Whoever comes in next will need a good team around him because you can’t do this job by yourself.’

Hansen’s successor is likely to be either his assistant Ian Foster or Crusaders mentor Scott Robertson. Joe Schmidt and Warren Gatland might also have claims to the throne but have ruled themselves out for the immediate future. Others such as Dave Rennie, Vern Cotter and Jamie Joseph also hover.

It could be that Tew, who also finishes up as chief executive of NZ Rugby post-World Cup, is the biggest loss of them all. He has run the Kiwi game for the past 12 years and been a top-notch rugby administrator for 25.

He is being replaced by a young, vibrant, modern executive in former All Black Mark Robinson, who will bring a fresh perspective to what many believe is the toughest job in New Zealand. But it will not be easy for him stepping into Tew’s well-worn shoes.

Through the many challenges of the modern professional game faced by a country of New Zealand’s size, isolation and limited economic capacity, Tew has been incredibly successful at retaining top-end talent and funding it. He’s a hard, respected negotiator and has fought tooth and nail for everything he has got. The All Blacks remain the pre-eminent brand in the game and New Zealand’s success across all levels of international competition is testimony to the system he has overseen.

His aim was to ‘get through this significant debate about competition structures, get our broadcast and content sales completed, get through a World Cup, and then pass on to someone else and take my rather large shadow out of the place in a very content and happy way’.

World Rugby’s CEO Brett Gosper said they were ‘daunting’ shoes to fill. Robinson will do so in his own style, with his own methods. But he would be wise to take note of the way in which his predecessor went about his business. His results were beyond dispute.


Incoming New Zealand Rugby CEO Mark Robinson will become the first All Black to hold the governing body’s top job when he takes office in January 2020. The former centre played nine Tests for New Zealand from 2000 to 2002 in an international career plagued by injury. He also won two Super Rugby titles with the Crusaders before cutting short his professional career to study philosophy and political science at Cambridge University in England.

‘I am truly excited by what this opportunity offers,’ Robinson said. ‘I have a clear vision to continue to grow the great work established under Steve Tew’s watch and recognise the significant responsibility we have in ensuring our game continues to flourish at all levels.

‘With 160 staff around the country, world-leading teams and competitions that traverse the entire calendar, I am humbled that the board believes I can help add to our legacy.

‘There are exciting challenges ahead for rugby, and I look forward to working with the entire team at New Zealand Rugby to keep the organisation at the front of hearts and minds of New Zealanders and the All Blacks fans all over the world.’

– This article first appeared in the November issue of SA Rugby magazine, now on sale