WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — As the Super Rugby season progresses, the debate roiling New Zealand is not about the form of those who are playing but the whereabouts of those who are not.
New Zealand Rugby has placed strict controls on the workload of All Blacks players at the start of the season; some top players will entirely miss the tournament's early rounds and others can only take a limited role in matches over the first few weeks.
Fans, already put off by the season's unusually early start, are upset about having to pay at the stadiums and in their living rooms to watch a tournament locally stripped of its biggest stars.
Now the backlash has spread to coaches past and present who believe New Zealand Rugby's efforts to protect the All Blacks, while well-meaning, have gone too far.
British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland, whose Hamilton-based Chiefs are unbeaten after two rounds, was the latest to question NZR's decision to usurp the role of coaches in managing player workloads.
Gatland said he understood through first-hand experience as Wales head coach the need to protect players from burnout and from injuries which arise from excessive workload. But he told Radio Sport a blanket policy was not the best way forward.
"I have been on both sides," Gatland said. "Part of my role in Super Rugby is supporting the All Blacks as much as I can. I want as many of my players to make the All Blacks (squad).
"I think there's a bit of a balance and probably, at the top, trusting the Super Rugby teams and coaches that we can manage our players well."
Japan assistant coach Tony Brown, whose Dunedin-based Highlanders were well beaten in their opening match on Saturday, is also a critic of an enforced stand-down of the elite players.
Brown said the policy had been designed in the past for players who carry the heaviest workloads. He said the effect on less-established international players could be detrimental because of the missed the chance to accumulate match time early in the season.
"In the past it's actually cost a few players their All Blacks careers," Brown said. "If you look at the Highlanders, guys like Malakai Fekitoa, Waisake Naholo, Elliot Dixon — those sort of guys who actually didn't get a lot of time for the All Blacks — getting rested ... didn't allow them to prepare for Super Rugby. And then their Super Rugby form actually cost them their All Blacks spot."
John Kirwan, the ex-All Black and former coach of the Auckland-based Blues, was among the earliest critics of the "load-management" system which has been championed by NZR chief executive Mark Robinson.
"The fans don't like it and Mark (Robinson) is standing there and saying 'the fans don't like it but our premium brand, the All Blacks, is successful'," Kirwan said. "I get that.
"However, if the fans stop turning up and don't engage with their Super sides then (NZR) are just going to have to keep pouring money into this competition."
Robinson has been forced to defend the policy in the face of criticism from fans that Super Rugby has been devalued by the absence of players such as star flyhalf Beauden Barrett, who won't play his first match for the Blues until April.
"We know that fans want to see the best possible players playing as much rugby as they possibly can," Robinson said. "But physically, in terms of the well-being of our athletes, that's just not possible.
"If you look at the first weekend of Super Rugby, we had 16 of the All Blacks from the Rugby World Cup playing. We think that's a pretty good representation. When you also look at the amount of players who've retired or moved offshore, that's a pretty high proportion of the overall available All Blacks that played."
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