Given the tragic state of the game in Australia and the impact that will likely have on Super Rugby Pacific for at least the next World Cup cycle, New Zealand faces a tough decision about what to do about its current All Blacks eligibility rules.
And that time is coming, as earlier this year when he was offered the job of All Blacks head coach, Scott Robertson said one of the first things he intended to do once he took over, was lay out to the board how he saw the player market evolving and why he felt things needed to change.
As he said in April: “We will have conversations, you have got to be a step ahead. If you are a step behind and then changing rules, and that is when you get caught.
“I will present the board where I think the game is heading, potentially, but a lot of that will be happening when I get in the role.”
He’s in the job now, and if anything, the need to reconsider eligibility has only intensified since he made those comments, because the World Cup demonstrated just how tight the margins are between the best teams and just how hard it will be for New Zealand’s players to develop while playing so much Super Rugby against Australians.
Robertson made those comments knowing that that Richie Mo’ounga, still only 28 and maybe only just coming of age as a test No 10, is heading to Japan for three years and therefore unavailable.
He also knew that 23-year-old Leicester Fainga’anuku is going to France, and that Shannon Frizell and Beauden Barrett are on one-year deals in Japan that both could be extended by another season if they so wish.
All four still have plenty to offer as Test players but certainly two of them, and all four of them – if Frizell and Barrett stay in Japan for a second season – will be unavailable for Robertson’s All Blacks in 2024.
And of course, there are other recent All Blacks such as Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Aaron Smith, Dane Coles and Nepo Laulala who are also heading overseas, and while all five are undoubtedly at an age when their best days are behind them, they would be perfect players to have available to answer an SOS from Robertson next year should an injury crisis occur.
And so this is mostly why Robertson wants to have the discussion with the New Zealand Rugby board sooner rather than later.
He’s likely going to have to start by picking Damian McKenzie as his preferred No 10. McKenzie has 40-plus test caps, but only a handful of starts at first five and for all his talent, it is going to take him time to learn the craft of his position.
The Wallabies, perhaps inadvertently, showed in picking Carter Gordon how hard it is for a young No 10 to find their feet in Test rugby
It is going to take him time to grow into the role and that makes the All Blacks vulnerable, and Robertson may well explain to the board how useful it would be to have Mo’unga available to serve as an alternative as well as a mentor.
And having Barrett available to do much the same thing would be invaluable.
The Wallabies, perhaps inadvertently, showed in picking Carter Gordon how hard it is for a young No 10 to find their feet in Test rugby and there was universal condemnation of Eddie Jones for not also picking a more senior playmaker in the squad such as Bernard Foley or Quade Cooper to help grow the Rebels pivot.
As former All Black Sonny Bill Williams said on Stan Sport: “I feel for Carter Gordon right now because he doesn’t have a Quade Cooper or a Bernard Foley to go back to at the hotel and pull him aside and say, ‘Look bro, these things happen’.”
He may also suggest that with a possible 15 Tests on the cards next year, that it would be a wise plan for the All Blacks to have access to highly-experienced footballers such as Retallick and Smith – just in case.
And it is not too dissimilar at halfback where Cam Roigard, Finlay Christie and Folau Fakatava will be the three of most interest, but none has any great experience and Smith, despite being 34, is in great physical shape and would be the ideal sort of player to have in the squad on limited playing duties.
No doubt, what will also come into Robertson’s presentation is the oddity and inconsistency of him being able to pick Ardie Savea and Sam Cane despite the fact neither will be playing Super Rugby next year.
Both men will be in Japan as part of longer-term NZR contracts and therefore have dispensation to be available for the July series next year. And throughout this cycle, other players who reach the agreed limit of playing 70 tests will qualify for a sabbatical and likely also play a season in Japan.
Razor’s argument may well suggest that it might be worth considering whether players on a two-year club contract in Japan could remain eligible for the All Blacks.
The logic stacks up – it takes a bit of weight off the wage bill and reduces the commercial pressure on NZR and means the All Blacks would be picking players exposed to a different sort of rugby.
And this is just as key as Australia has plunged further in the world rankings and is in such chaos that it’s difficult to imagine Super Rugby Pacific is going to provide the right sort of high-performance environment to produce the sort of players the All Blacks need.
The All Blacks coaches are having to plug gaps in the skill-sets of their players and do yet more heavy lifting to get their players ready for Test football.
That’s the undeniable truth about the competition as it currently stands. There are four high-quality teams in New Zealand – Crusaders, Chiefs, Blues and Hurricanes – while the Australians have one, the Brumbies.
The Drua are a relatively complex team to assess as they are incredibly tough to beat in Fiji and yet their record on the road is not great.
The Highlanders, Reds and Waratahs are teams with potential yet struggle to fulfil it and the Rebels, Force and Moana Pasifika are all probably looking once again at long, difficult campaigns in 2024, even despite some strong recruiting in the off-season.
There’s a couple of different ways to interpret how fit for purpose Super Rugby Pacific is. The first is to say that the transition from the old Super Rugby competition – the 15-team format of 2020 that had five teams from New Zealand, four from Australia, four from South Africa, and the Jaguares and Sunwolves – was difficult.
But with the All Blacks making the World Cup final, that serves as proof that it just took New Zealand’s players and coaches a bit of time to transition, and that the new competition is providing the sort of tough rugby it should be.
Unfortunately, that’s more wishful thinking than anything else and the real story is that the All Blacks coaches are having to plug gaps in the skill-sets of their players and do yet more heavy lifting to get their players ready for Test football.
Super Rugby Pacific simply isn’t providing New Zealand’s players with the consistency of hard, physical rugby that they need, something All Blacks forwards coach Jason Ryan revealed during the World Cup without being explicit.
Asked if Super Rugby was adequately preparing the young props in his charge for the rigours of the World Cup, and the different scrummaging techniques and body shapes that they would face, he said: “It was always enjoyable playing the Boks in Super Rugby in my experience because they are a big forward pack.
“You don’t have that sort of demand in the Super Rugby competition as much as you used to.
“But I think what is important is that you have to run scenarios at trainings and you have to make sure that you are setting guys up to succeed in different situations that you can create through different ways of loading the scrum and engaging. It’s probably not what it used to be, but we have got no excuses, we have to get ourselves right at trainings and we learned that in the test at Twickenham [against South Africa].”
NZR has rigidly stuck by its belief that it can’t budge on its eligibility policy, but Robertson will be hopeful that he can win a few concessions at least as the landscape of 2024 is very different to how it was in 1995.