The best rugby team in the world facing down Australia’s league team in Tokyo? All it takes for the ‘might’ to turn into a ‘will’ is someone to stump up with the cash, writes Jamie Wall.
This time of year really is the silly-season for the rugby rumour mill. Just last week we were subjected to the ridiculous notion that Julian Savea had managed to broker a deal with Harlequins over the course of a weekend, despite recently re-signing with NZ Rugby. Now it’s English players whingeing about one another and Eddie Jones trying to wind up anyone that’ll bother to listen to him.
So the opportunity was rife to float the notion of a highly unlikely sounding event – a clash between the All Blacks and Kangaroos in a cross-code match in Tokyo after the next World Cup.
The backlash was as swift as it was predictable – journalists and online commenters alike dismissing the idea as nonsense, and that it’d be impossible to schedule anyway. However, it’s not quite as far-fetched as you might think, not least because of the $50 million pay-day the game has been said to bring with it.
For a start, it’s happened before – albeit in a slightly different format. Back in 1996, on the eve of professional rugby union, English champions Bath took on rugby league powerhouses Wigan in a two-match ‘Clash of the Codes’. Wigan unsurprisingly thrashed their counterparts in the league fixture. The union game was a slightly closer affair, helped by the fact that several of the Wigan players had experience playing high level rugby.
In a football code of a different type, the AFL has managed to make the concept of mixing two similar sports together with the International Rules seriesbetween a national side and an Irish team comprised of Gaelic footballers.
While not a hybrid and more of a bastard son, T20 cricket literally bludgeoned its way onto the summer game’s agenda. The IPL, Big Bash and other competitions offer players outrageous wages, so international cricket now finds itself having to work around these tournaments – because if they didn’t, no one would show up to play for their countries.
Jump forward to this year, and the largest sporting event moneywise was a crossover event. Say what you want about the morally bankrupt and classless way Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor went about promoting their fight in Las Vegas in August, the fact of the matter is both men walked away a hell of lot richer. You could argue that their reputations even came out of it somewhat enhanced, due to McGregor’s good showing and Mayweather’s uncharacteristic graciousness at the end.
And the whole thing started just like this potential All Blacks/Kangaroos game did. Nobody believed it would happen, and both men publicly rubbished it. Then they simply signed the deal, hyped it up and got a massive wad of cash for around 45 minutes work.
OK, so fight sports are a bit of a jump from rugby – especially given that they more or less all have to go through a self promotional phase to gain interest from the public and media. However, just have a look at how the All Black/England rivalry has been built up as the heavyweight title fight of rugby. There were very serious moves to bring their next meeting forward an entire year (not the worst suggestion given that England’s ability to sustain dominance has historically been very poor), and it’s highly likely we can look forward to months of World-Cup level hype and intrigue leading into their meeting at Twickenham next November.
Then you’ve got the fact that the end of the year is when the All Blacks are in serious money-making mode anyway. The dam has very much burst on this one, going back to the contentious decision to rebrand NZ’s other national teams as the All Blacks (a courtesy not extended to the women’s side, mind you). Matches in Chicago at the behest of AIG are something we can expect every two years now, while France now find themselves opposing the All Blacks so adidas can outfit both teams in whatever jerseys they want people buying their kids for Christmas.
It’s not actually too much of a stretch to think that it won’t be long before the All Blacks simply take two sides to Europe every year, to schedule a doubleheader against the likes of Wales and Scotland on the same day.
The point is, by the time the potential All Blacks v Kangaroos game rolled around, no one would particularly care about the implications of ‘selling out’. NZ Rugby have already set in motion the previously unmentionable precedent for New Zealanders to simply watch the All Blacks, pay-per-view on their own platform, and barely anyone has raised an eyebrow. It seems like finally enough time has passed between the advent of professionalism for even the most traditional of fans to accept that the coin has to come in, one way or another.
And that’s why this cross code venture isn’t so out of the question in 2017. $50 million is a veritable goldmine for NZ Rugby, not least in the sense that it would give them some serious leverage to contract key All Blacks past the 2019 Rugby World Cup. If it’s a success and can keep generating that sort of revenue, it would be a massive carrot to dangle in front of fringe players thinking of packing up their boots and heading to the Top 14. Right now you’d have to think NZR would be open to any suggestions as to how they can stop that happening, and CEO Steve Tew (while skeptical) has already said they’d be completely open to Hybrid rugby for that amount of money.
While the Bath v Wigan matches were a historical anomaly, what was going in the background at that time is also pertinent to this discussion. 1996 was the first year of professional rugby, and its birth was one of an acrimonious dispute between Australian media barons Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch. The two had combined to almost destroy rugby league around about the same time, and it was only the political maneuvering of a few key players and administrators that stopped union going the same way.
The landscape the two were fighting over – broadcasting rights – has completely changed since then. Streaming rights for a new product like the Hybrid code aren’t just restricted to a TV screen, and the ability for an organisation to simply do it themselves has already been achieved by the All Blacks themselves.
So, while the idea of seeing the likes of Beauden Barrett and Kieran Read lining up against Cameron Smith and Greg Inglis seems out of the question right now, it’s not worth completely writing off. Given that a number of players on both sides have had experience in both codes – in Sonny Bill Williams’ case the highest levels too – it at least makes for a good discussion as to what might happen. As McGregor and Mayweather showed, all it takes for the ‘might’ to turn into a ‘will’ is someone to stump up with the cash.
Because it doesn’t really matter what sport you’re playing, every man has his price.
This story originally ran on RugbyPass.com – the premier destination for rugby fans in Asia, streaming International Test Matches including The Rugby Championship, Super Rugby and more to your device wherever you are in Asia.