Japan’s rise as the destination of choice for leading All Blacks signals a significant shift in the player transfer market. The only question now is whether this is a short or long term swing.
France and England have long been kingmakers when it comes time for All Blacks to cash in and depart New Zealand shores, whatever stage in career that may be.
Marquee All Blacks can still take their pick of multi-million dollar contracts that set families up for life.
Increasingly, though, players are grasping there is much more at play than the bottom line alone.
Lifestyle, language, longevity are all wider considerations. And in the coming years for top tier talent, it seems Japan ticks more of those boxes than Europe.
Moving from the financially-hamstrung Southern Hemisphere to France and England will always be attractive from a salary perspective.
As long as wealthy, ego-driven owners engage in unregulated bidding wars, star power will continue to garner ridiculous sums.
According to Esportif’s inaugural European rugby by the numbers 2017/18, a report compiled by former Deloitte accountant Hannah Bowe, average salaries in the French Top 14 rose 29 per cent since the 2014/15 season; 43 per cent in that time in England’s Premiership Rugby.
Those rapid rises lured Steven Luatua, Charles Piutau, Aaron Cruden, Lima Sopoaga, Julian Savea and many others.
In all last season, over 340 foreign players accounted for 29 per cent of Premiership Rugby; 36 per cent of the Top 14.
Such staggering figures are unlikely to change anytime soon.
The imminent £200m (NZD$378m) cash injection from CVC Capital Partners – in exchange for a 27 per cent stake in the English competition – means more money for ambitious clubs to spend, in all likelihood on further recruitment.
Yet in the short term at least, many leading All Blacks eyeing offshore stints seem set to choose Japan.
As the Herald revealed in October, while not confirmed yet, the prospect of a two-for-one Japanese season in 2020 could rival European salaries. That year there is now potential for Japan’s Top League to feature Beauden Barrett, Brodie Retallick, Kieran Read, Ryan Crotty, Dane Coles, Ben Smith – following his seven-month stint at Pau – and possibly Aaron Smith.
Set aside the money aspect, and Japan is increasingly attractive because England and France are not always as they seem.
Imports there are often asked to get up every week for 35 weeks.
Over that length of time, the physical nature of the European game takes its toll on forwards while backs – as Cruden and Sopoaga can attest – find natural instincts stifled.
Many foreigners in those markets find rugby a daily grind.
Life in France, especially, is challenging at first, too. Culture shock can be very real.
Many French destinations speak French and only French. The language is difficult to grasp for those emerging from such isolated parts of the world, never before forced outside their comfort zone quite like this.
Then there are the club owners: demanding, dictatorial, in-your-face.
Not all, of course, but some are notoriously aggressive in their day-to-day involvement.
So while the South of France is a stunning coast and the pay cheque each month enticing, expectations and reality don’t always marry.
Postcard paradise this is not for all.
The European game holds much more glamour than Japan in terms of history, prestige and quality but few New Zealanders play backyard footy aspiring to lift the Champions Cup.
With games played in the middle of the night, it just isn’t on their radar.
Once their time in the All Blacks is done it is usually about securing the best, holistic package rather than chasing further glory.
Nothing ever replaces the black jersey, after all.
As far as alternatives go, Japan in 2020 will, clearly, take some beating.
Barrett, Retallick and others are expected to leave on one-year contracts with Read and Crotty probably heading the list of the longer term migration north.
New Zealand Rugby’s contracting team have seen this Japanese shift coming and are, no doubt, attempting to form alliances – as they did with the London-based Harlequins – with specific clubs in order to guarantee Barrett and Retallick return home.
Maintaining relationships with Wayne Smith, Dave Dillon, Robbie Deans, Rob Penny, Peter Russell and Earl Va’a – just some of the Japan-based Kiwi coaches – is easier than attempting to negotiate with French owners.
By no means is this the perfect scenario, with burnout and injuries evident in similar situations of Springboks returning from Japan to South Africa.
But in the modern age, it is probably the best New Zealand can hope for.
Whether the 2020 Japanese exodus, one which will significantly weaken Super Rugby, proves an aberration or more permanent shift time will tell.
Frustrated French owners will not enjoy being brushed so expect them to raise the stakes too.