18 Feb 2017

More to Luatua's departure than just money

9:20 pm on 18 February 2017

Opinion - The crafty Eddie Jones has been a perfect villain for rugby fans in New Zealand.

Not only is in charge of one team we love to beat, he's originally from the other team we love to beat as well.

Eddie Jones (right) has been a villain for NZ rugby fans, but perhaps they should be watching Pat Lam (left).

Eddie Jones (right) has been a villain for NZ rugby fans, but perhaps they should be watching Pat Lam (left). Photo: Photosport

The build up to when the All Blacks finally get to play England has already started (despite no actual date or venue for the game having been finalised yet), and Jones' cunning grin and purposely pointed sound bites are already taking centre-stage.

However, this week another coach based overseas emerged as potentially far more threatening than a guy whose England team might have turned back into being useless by the time the All Blacks play them.

Pat Lam, former Blues coach and now in charge of Bristol, got in a public war of words with All Black coach Steve Hansen over the signing of All Black Steven Luatua - making obvious not only his intention to pursue top NZ talent, but also NZ Rugby's belligerent response to it.

And who can blame Lam?

Say what you want about his coaching record at the Blues, the fact still remains he's the last coach to take them to the Super Rugby playoffs. The season that followed was, in anyone's books, a disaster - but the resulting events understandably left a pretty big chip on Lam's shoulder.

After being hounded by the media and subjected to a racist text from former Auckland coach Mark Anscombe, whose son Gareth was in the Blues squad at the time, Lam upped and left New Zealand to coach Irish cellar-dwellers Connacht.

Fast forward four years and Connacht are now Pro12 champions, meaning Lam has picked up the head coaching gig at newly promoted English Premiership side Bristol. Bigger competition means more money to throw at potential players, so Lam opened his account by signing Luatua.

Outgoing Blues forward Steven Luatua.

Outgoing Blues forward Steven Luatua. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

If the All Blacks weren't already a little nervous about Charles Piutau, then Aaron Cruden taking off overseas, then Luatua's departure actually elicited a rare response from the All Black coach. He made the remarkably clunky assertion that Lam should be looking out for player's careers, especially as an 'ex-New Zealander'.

Lam then said that he didn't appreciate being called an 'ex-New Zealander' in a quote that was doing a very thin job of veiling his obvious and justified contempt of NZ Rugby, his former employers.

It's something that they'd do to well to take notice of, and not just because it's the latest in a year's worth of off-field PR failures that NZ Rugby has done its best to pretend never happened.

Piutau and Cruden both went to big spending teams, with the latter's contract being rumoured at over $1 million a year.

However, if Lam can convince Luatua, a guy who had every chance of making the All Blacks this year, to go to a team like Bristol then that precedent Piutau and Cruden set has just been expanded quite a bit. Also, it's not too much of a stretch to think that Lam used his own personal experience of the under-performing and fractured state that Auckland rugby is in to help guide Luatua's decision.

If things go well for Lam at Bristol, the financial reserve he's already tapping into is only going to get bigger - as will his (and every European-based coach's) shopping list for All Blacks.

So while there's nothing they could've done to stop Eddie Jones plotting the All Blacks downfall on the field, NZ Rugby can probably blame themselves for this new and very real threat off it.

* Jamie Wall grew up in Wellington and enjoyed a stunningly mediocre rugby career in which the sole highlight was a seat on the bench for his club's premier side. He's enjoyed far more success spouting his viewpoints on the game to anyone who'll care to listen.

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