Rugby League

Gregor Paul: Losing TJ Perenara would be NZ Rugby’s greatest recruitment failure since Charles Piutau

OPINION:

What should and most likely will still be a regulation re-signing of TJ Perenara, is seemingly playing out as if it is quite the storm in the teacup.

The waves started to lap the side of the cup when Sir John Kirwan reasoned that in a buyers’ market where funds are tight, New Zealand Rugby should think hard about whether they should re-sign the 29-year-old halfback who is currently in Japan and off contract at the end of the year.

A few days later came the inevitable shock-horror revelation that the Sydney Roosters know the phone number of Perenara’s agent and he is now “seriously considering” an offer to defect to the NRL.

If, somehow, the tea does indeed end up spilling everywhere and Perenara doesn’t sign a two-year extension to stay with the Hurricanes, it will be the most significant recruitment failure since Charles Piutau agreed a two-year deal to stay in New Zealand in 2015, only to pop the contract in a drawer and subsequently rip it up three weeks later when he fielded a better offer from Ulster.

But a failure to recapture Perenara, who stated his desire to return and continue playing here when he announced his one-season sabbatical in Japan, and who has reconfirmed it in recent weeks during negotiations with the Hurricanes and NZR, will have a significantly detrimental impact in a way the loss of Piutau didn’t.

To Kirwan’s point that Perenara has had an extended period with the All Blacks and never quite managed to convince that he’s the right alternative to Aaron Smith, there is truth.

Perenara, so bold, decisive and astute when he plays for the Hurricanes, has been strangely uncertain in many of his All Blacks tests.

He’s a great decision-maker in Super Rugby, tactically smart where his natural inclination to take risks is inspired and yet in test football, he’s often hesitant, muddled and guilty of erratic option-taking.

There’s a hot-headedness to his work with the All Blacks, which saw him almost throttle his opposite Nic White last year before he thought better of it.

It strangely doesn’t stack up that Perenara can be so assured in Super Rugby and double down as an articulate and inspiring role model off the field, but seemingly be troubled by the pressure and intensity of test rugby. As Steve Hansen always said, though, it was most often the ones he didn’t expect that struggled to cope.

But two things are absolutely worth making clear. One, is that while he has deficiencies in his test portfolio, he remains head and shoulders ahead of any of the emerging candidates such as Mitchell Drummond, Finlay Christie and Bryn Hall.

The only serious new entrant into the halfback world in the last few years has been Folau Fakatava and he won’t be eligible to play for New Zealand until 2023 due to the pending change in the residency qualifications.

Secondly, it’s an absolute must that New Zealand rids itself of this underlying notion that players with limited prospects of making it to the All Blacks have limited to no value.

That attitude did plenty to kill Super Rugby pre-Covid. We had players negotiating late starts and in some cases sabbaticals to miss whole seasons.

We had big name players forever resting and missing various games and typically, we saw discarded All Blacks try to fast track their way out of the country with rejection clauses that allowed them to head offshore the second they sensed their test careers were over.

All of which heightened the sense of Super Rugby being mostly a giant inconvenience for half of the country’s top talent and the competition rotted from the inside to the point where it would have collapsed even if the pandemic hadn’t hit.

That culture can’t resume in what will be a brave new world of a trans-Tasman-Pacific Super Rugby set-up next year.

Already, New Zealand’s existing five Super Rugby teams are warning about a lack of available players and that’s before Moana Pasifika start recruiting their 37-man roster for next year.

It would be a stunning act of contradiction for New Zealand’s teams to moan about a barren player market and not re-sign the spiritual leader of the Hurricanes and a man who could transform them once he returns.

Perenara returning would be the insertion of the steel rod the Hurricanes need to stop from bending and swaying when they are being pushed around. He’s one man and yet he will bring the presence of two and the influence of three.

The game here needs to better understand the value of seasoned, committed professionals such as Perenara and consider all that he brings rather than condemn him to a life offshore because he’s under pressure to prove himself as a test player.

NZR have to re-sign Perenara but the All Blacks don’t necessarily have to pick him to justify the investment.

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