Why not? Savea’s NRL project reflects shift in player power


Welcome to the new world order of athlete power.

Professional rugby is celebrating its silver anniversary this season and, like any marriage, the relationship between those governing the game and those at the coalface has evolved significantly in that time.

For the vast majority of the first 25 years of professionalism, national unions and clubs controlled rugby’s balance of power.

Now, though, there are signs a distinct role reversal is underway as private interest enters the market and the collective awareness grows among players around their ability to exercise influence.

Last year we had Johnny Sexton, Kieran Read and Owen Farrell, among other leading figures, kick the stuffing out of World Rugby’s plans for the Nations Championship by vehemently criticising the concept.

While player-led input is increasingly encouraged in team environments to form tactics and cultural standards, Scotland continues to confront the standoff between talisman Finn Russell and coach Gregor Townsend.

Closer to home, Ardie Savea is the latest example of the power shifting trend.

Intentional or otherwise, Savea has backed New Zealand Rugby into a corner by recently stating “100 percent I want to play league” – indicating this move could happen as soon as next year.

Savea’s employers at the Hurricanes and the national body were blindsided by his comments, given he is contracted to New Zealand until 2021.

Losing the 26-year-old, one of the world’s best players over the past two years and a potential future All Blacks captain, would be a body blow to the New Zealand game.

It’s a scenario NZ Rugby will fear. They will, therefore, do everything within their power to retain his services in the coming years, which leaves Savea dictating the terms of any future agreement.

Prior to extending his last deal with NZ Rugby, Savea came close to joining French club Pau on a lucrative contract. In the end he decided to stay, largely with a view to settling his then one-year-old daughter Kobe in Wellington.

During that process Savea may well have observed the benefits of multiple suitors.

Either way his repeated expressions of interest in playing rugby league, specifically naming the successful Sydney Roosters and Melbourne Storm as potential clubs, is sure to spark a bidding war that he can explore or use to his advantage during negotiations.

Savea is someone who, in recent years, has become astute at leveraging his public profile.

He’s quickly realised, following brother Julian’s rapid exit to French club Toulon, that his body is a business and with it comes the importance of maximising the short shelf life all athletes have to gain exposure and build personal brands.

In the process of launching his podcast and clothing label, as well as holding local walks to engage with the public on a personal level, Savea has become much more comfortable and confident expressing genuinely held opinions about a range of topics.

He often shares these views in podcasts or on social platforms, rather than traditional forms of media.

Speaking to Isaac John, the former Warriors and Panthers playmaker and a friend of Savea’s, about the potential of switching codes offered a safe space to discuss his interest in the challenge of pulling off a move to the NRL.

As revenue challenges mount and with Super Rugby’s future uncertain, Savea’s comments leave NZ Rugby nowhere to go.

All the power rests in his hands.

Sabbaticals handed out to leading All Blacks have been derided in the early stages of this season as Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick take spells out of the New Zealand game to boost their bank balances in Japan.

Beauden Barrett isn’t due to make his first appearance for the Blues until mid-April after savouring trips abroad, including one to the Super Bowl, while on leave. He then has another one-year sabbatical in his contract.

These options are nothing new, however. Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Ben Smith long set the precedent. Many other All Blacks have late starts built into their contracts too.

Sonny Bill Williams broke the mould by frequently transitioning between rugby union and league, and Savea believes he could do likewise.

Savea is entitled to shape his future as he pleases, and would be well within his rights to suggest a stint in league is no different than Retallick playing two seasons in Japan.

Faced with the prospect of potentially losing Savea for good or allowing him to try his hand at league and then return, NZ Rugby would surely opt for the latter option. It’s seemingly the best of the hamstrung world they live in.

From a timing perspective Savea could have a crack at league, and then return to rugby in time for the 2023 World Cup. That’s the best of both worlds.

Leaving the black jersey poses risks, sure. New Zealand’s talent production line traditionally throws up supreme talent every year. But athletes of Savea’s calibre are rare species.

Any code switch is difficult to predict – transitions usually require time to absorb the rival code’s nuances – but it’s not hard to envision Savea causing havoc down the left edge in the NRL. His speed, offloading, footwork, leg-drive and strength are equally applicable in a rugby league context.

Savea is far from alone in holding all the bargaining power.

In Australia this element is evident in the four-year, $4.5 million contract extension tabled by the Newcastle Knights to retain 21-year-old Kalyn Ponga.

The offer reportedly includes the unusual option of allowing Ponga the chance to pursue a place in the All Blacks squad for the 2023 World Cup.

While Williams and Brad Thorn achieved the feat, Benji Marshall’s code switch with the Blues screams caution at attempting to traverse a playmaking role from the NRL to the All Blacks in one year.

Regardless, Ponga’s status is such that he, like Savea, commands enough control to effectively write his own contract.

Athletes’ futures, particularly in contact sports, are fraught and no one can begrudge them attempting to cash in or chase dreams.

But as this dynamic continues to alter, for better or worse administrators and fans will be forced to go along for the ride.

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