Two Cents Rugby: Are New Zealand Rugby capping players to keep them from turning out for other countries?

Two Cents Rugby
Two Cents Rugby and Pita Gus Sowakula

With the announcement that two-cap All Black Pita Gus Sowakula will be heading to France after Super Rugby Pacific 2023, it flared up a familiar argument.

Said argument is once again about New Zealand rugby allegedly capping players to keep them out of other countries’ hands, which is often a go-to viewpoint.

But is this the case? Two Cents Rugby has taken a fascinating deep dive at the 35 players capped by New Zealand in the last five years, seeing how things look.

Several other players in same boat

Has anyone been picked for the All Blacks and played less time than Sowakula in the last five years? The answer is a clear, yes. Cullen Grace, another loose forward, had about three minutes from the bench against Australia in 2020 and is yet to make it back. Fly-half Brett Cameron managed nine minutes in one Test against Japan.

Other single Test players include Josh Ioane, Gareth Evans, Peter-Umaga Jensen and Aidan Ross. Most of these players, although out of the mix, are still active in Super Rugby so potentially eligible for the All Blacks in the future. Cameron and Proctor have since left New Zealand so will finish their All Blacks careers with just one appearance each.

The most successful players to convert a debut into an All Blacks career have actually been props. Karl Tu’inukuafe, Angus Ta’avao, Tyrel Lomax and George Bower are all 20+ cap players. If you include hooker, we can add Samisoni Taukei’aho to the list with his 21 caps.

Interestingly with this list of front-rowers, all were eligible for other countries, some had turned down call-ups in favour of aiming for the black jersey. Tu’inukuafe, Ta’avao and Bower, all New Zealand born but had family connections abroad. Lomax was born in Australia, with a former Kiwis league prop dad and even played U20s in green and gold. Tau’keiaho was at times the most controversial, having come to New Zealand on a rugby scholarship in his teens, chose to play for the All Blacks and has become a regular starter.

For loose forwards like Sowakula, the list is mixed. Some players like Tongan born Shannon Frizell have gone on to make regular All Blacks starts. So too have Dalton Papali’i and Hoskins Sotutu. Luke Jacobson and Ethan Blackadder have had stints in black interrupted by injury. The aforementioned Evans and Grace only managed one cap each. Lock/loose forward Jackson Hemopo managed five caps before accepting an offer in Japan.

Prior to his selection Sowakula’s pursuit of an All Blacks spot was described in the Fijian Sun as an “uphill battle” against the likes of Ardie Savea and others, but also highlighted Fiji’s own depth in the loose.

After Sowakula was dropped from the All Blacks, Fiji Rugby’s General Manager of High-Performance Simon Raiwalui said on social media: “This is not poaching or hoarding, players move to another country and opportunities arise… situations change. Plenty of players get only a few caps for ABs, that is the quality and depth that they have.”

Was it tough on Sowakula to be dropped after two Tests? Yes, of course. Is he the first player to get the raw end of a selection choice by the All Blacks? No, and he won’t be the last either.

Clermont are getting a top player

Personally, I don’t buy that the New Zealand selectors are moustache twirling villains keeping players out of the hands of other countries, and it’s possible the change of coaching setup behind the scenes in the All Blacks camp didn’t help either.

At the end of the day, he’ll still be eligible for New Zealand at the Rugby World Cup, but in all likelihood, he’ll be another name on the list of players who never managed more than a few caps.

Still, Clermont are getting one heck of a player.

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