Rico Gear surfaced in the cathedral city of Worcester last Monday. It was easy to tell something New Zealandish was afoot at the Sixways stadium because half a dozen bare-chested, war-painted Maori could be seen dancing on the pitch. Twenty-four hours later, Aaron Mauger materialised at Leicester. The following day, it was Saracens' turn to welcome a stellar All Black Chris Jack, in this instance. Rugby folk from Whangarei to Invercargill have been shocked by the scale of the diaspora, and some of them may feel inclined to blame Andrew Blowers of Bristol.
In the early years of the professional club game in England, they came from all points of the compass to be a part of it: Michael Lynagh and Troy Coker made their way from Australia, Garry Pagel and Rudi Straeuli flew in from South Africa, Philippe Sella crossed the water from France. All points of the compass except one: New Zealand. Active silver-ferners as opposed to the pensionable variety were next to unrecruitable in those frontier-busting days. It was only when Blowers, a brilliant flanker some years short of his prime, turned his back on the treasured shirt and joined Northampton that rugby's free market truly came into its own.
He was not the first big-name New Zealander to jump hemispheres: Va'aiga Tuigamala, for one, was already at Newcastle. But the All Black hierarchy were no longer interested in Tuigamala in the way they were interested in Blowers, who, as a back-rower in his mid-20s, had much to offer the most obsessively self-protective national team in the sport. By leaving home when he did, this Aucklander of Samoan descent broke the mould. Had it not been for Blowers, a young player as sensational as Luke McAlister might not now be playing for Sale.
The team published below proves that nothing remains sacred in the face of the British rugby economy, driven primarily by England with a little help from the Welsh regions. There are 14 capped All Blacks in The Independent's line-up, two-thirds of whom have played Test rugby within the last three years. And it does not end at numbers one to 15. Daryl Gibson and David Hill, Mark Robinson and Filo Tiatia, dear old Carlos Spencer... all are full New Zealand internationals playing their rugby on the British mainland.
"Does it surprise me that so many All Blacks have joined clubs here? No, not at all," Blowers said this week. "The opportunities in England are so good, people like Rico and Aaron were bound to be tempted. I'm not simply talking about the financial aspect, although there's no point pretending money isn't a part of the attraction. I'm talking about the whole package the chance to experience different rugby in a different sporting environment, the chance for a family man to give his kids a broader education. When you weigh these things up, it's easy to see why so many New Zealanders are looking to play here."
But what about McAlister? The Gears and Maugers are ex-internationals now, as is Jack, who made it abundantly clear this week that the All-Black way of life no longer has a hold on him. McAlister is different, though. By saying his fond farewells at 24, he has cut the silver-ferned fraternity to the quick, just as Blowers did after the 1999 World Cup.
"Yeah, I'd say Luke's decision is a little more surprising," he admitted. "There again, I think he'll return to New Zealand and challenge for a place in the 2011 team. And having experienced rugby life in England, I'd expect him to return a better player. He'll grow as a person, not just as a centre or an outside-half. That certainly happened in my case. When I left home, the most pressing thing was to start fending for myself. Back in Auckland, there was always family to help out with the kids. That family support base isn't there for you when you go abroad. I suppose I learned what it was to be an adult.
"Luke will find all this out for himself, and he'll be a stronger person for it. And I have no doubt that the All Black coaches, whoever they may be in a couple of years' time, will welcome him back. When I left, I was left in no doubt that I was burning my bridges. Their attitude was very much: 'You want to leave? OK, leave. There are plenty more flankers around the corner, waiting for a chance.' I think that's changed now. When Graham Henry agreed to coach Wales, they weren't too happy about it in New Zealand. But it was Graham who coached the ABs in the World Cup, wasn't it?"
This is Blowers' second stint in the Premiership. Having left Northampton to take up an offer in Japan, where his young family found it difficult to settle, he returned to Auckland and was happily playing National Provincial Championship rugby when Bristol, stricken by injuries to important back-row personnel, made a pitch for his services in an effort to reinforce their position at the top end of the table. He arrived in February, and even though he is characteristically modest about his contribution "Most of the hard work had been done by then," he said his performances helped drive the West Country club into play-off territory.
"He is," said Richard Hill, the director of rugby, "the complete professional. He's a tremendous player, obviously, but I can also point to a moment when I was talking to a large group of schoolchildren, and Andrew appeared in the room. He made it his business to shake every one of them by the hand and spend a few moments with them. Afterwards, I asked him why he'd done it. He told me that his role model at Auckland had been the great Michael Jones, and that this was the way Jones behaved all the time. That's where Andrew comes from, and it's a pleasure working with him."
Only this week, the devout Blowers was rounding up all and sundry at a Bristol training session and demanding, in his quiet way, that they join him in some charitable Christmas work on behalf of the city's homeless. But the main concern of the moment was preparation for today's Heineken Cup match at Harlequins. When the West Countrymen frittered away a winning lead at Cardiff Blues in the opening round of the tournament, there seemed little likelihood of them enjoying a meaningful European campaign. But a compelling wild-weather victory over Stade Franais at the Memorial Ground seven days later put things in a very different perspective.
"It did us a power of good to beat a team boasting the kind of reputation Stade Franais brought with them," he said, "but the true test of this Bristol side will take place away from home. I don't know why it should be, but it seems to be a part of the English sporting culture that winning away from your own ground is a major challenge. There is an element of it back home in New Zealand, but not on the scale you find here. This game at Harlequins is very important to us. Victory could really set up our season."
Whatever happens over the next few months, Blowers will not extend his current contract, which expires at the end of next season. "I want to go out at a time of my choosing, when it's still my idea rather than someone else's," he explained. "Then, it will be back to New Zealand with the family" his wife Gina, his eight-year-old son Sam, seven-year-old daughter Stella, and infant son Solomona, born 18 months ago "and a proper settling down. The kids are beginning to miss their grandparents."
And what will he find there, rugby-wise? Will his countrymen still be beating their breasts and gnashing their teeth at the latest World Cup failure? Will the northwards exodus leave the All Black nation bereft? Blowers is not one to flinch from such questions. He may be one of rugby's gentlemen, but he does not beat about the bush.
"I think the volume of players heading for Europe does have the potential to devastate the game in New Zealand," he said. "It's bound to become an issue over time if young players do not have what I had at their age someone to look up to. I had Michael Jones, which was pretty special. I was able to learn from the way he played, the way he carried himself as a professional, as an All Black.
"And yes, I guess the country will still be hurting from the failure to bring home the World Cup. I've never been a great watcher of rugby, but All Black fortunes run in the blood of most New Zealanders. If you've actually been an All Black, you carry it with you wherever you go. When we lost to France in that quarter-final, it hurt. I've been coached by Graham Henry and Wayne Smith. When you know the guys involved, it's pretty painful to see them lose."
Yet if Blowers has an emotional bond with the New Zealand game that is impossible to break, he also has a tie with English rugby. Unlike some of his countrymen, he does not mock it, still less profess to despise it. The Premiership has been good for him, which is as it should be. After all, the trailblazer from the City of Sails has been very good indeed for the Premiership.Reuse content