group of approximately 22 All Blacks will miss the opening seven rounds of the Rebel Sport Super 14 next year as they take part in an intensive conditioning programme in preparation for the World Cup in France.
The controversial programme was approved by the New Zealand Rugby Union Board last Friday following extensive consultation with the All Blacks coaches and management, the All Blacks, the Super 14 Franchises, Sky TV, sponsors and the New Zealand Rugby Players' Association.
The players will join the Super 14 in the eighth round in April after participating in an individually tailored and intensive 12-week programme geared to get them into peak physical and mental shape for the World Cup campaign.
"We want to give the All Blacks the best possible chance of winning the Rugby World Cup," said NZRU chief executive Chris Moller in a statement.
"It is clear the rugby public of New Zealand share that ambition. It is critical that our top players have the opportunity to prepare in the right way so that they are in the best shape of their lives when they get to France.
"Sports science research and our coaches tell us that the players need a continuous window when they can do the necessary physical conditioning work without the rigours of playing top level rugby at the same time. The challenge has been to find that window."
Moller said that the NZRU Board had considered a number of other options but, based on a variety of factors including learnings from past RWC campaigns and the sports science advice available, it was agreed that January to April was the best window.
"We would not want to take the leading players out of November's tour to Europe or next year's Philips Tri Nations. There needs to be a conditioning window following the end of the 2006 season, which will require those players to miss the first seven rounds of the 2007 Rebel Sport Super 14 competition. This timing will maximise the benefits of the conditioning activity as it follows the summer break for the All Blacks, who will then be able to start their conditioning programme fresh."
It is envisaged that those players, who are not selected for the conditioning programme, but who are in contention for World Cup selection, will take a full part in their Super 14 campaigns and undertake some recovery and reconditioning activity after that tournament.
The 22 players will be named after this year's Tri Nations championship. The All Blacks have two tests left in that tournament after winning the title in Auckland last Saturday night. They face the Springboks twice in South Africa over the next two Saturdays.
An extra 22 players would be drafted into the Super 14 to cover their absence. Moller admitted this would be a costly exercise but it was a cost the NZRU was willing to take on in the quest to win back the World Cup.
All Blacks coach Graham Henry noted that the selected All Blacks would be hard at work during the conditioning window.
"The team's strength and conditioning coaches will have the players on intensive training programmes, and they will monitor those programmes closely, along with trainers within each franchise."
Henry said that player welfare remained a key issue for the NZRU and All Blacks management and the conditioning programme was a response to the demands of test match rugby; and the desire of the coaches to have the team in peak condition for theWorld Cup.
All Blacks strength and conditioning coach Graham Lowe said the conditioning programme was a key part of the team's World Cup preparations and specific programmes would be developed for each player, focused on the player's specific requirements and having regard to the timing of the World Cup.
New Zealand Rugby Players Association Executive Director Rob Nichol said that given the current landscape initiatives such as the conditioning programme provide for the best chance of success on the international stage and also assist in preserving the welfare of our players. View larger image
A cautious thumbs up from Graham Henry
"We are supportive of the programme. It is another initiative designed to assist us in managing the demands on our international players for the benefit of the individual, the team and New Zealand rugby.
"The conditioning programme is providing an opportunity for our leading players to step back from the playing environment to rebuild themselves physically in terms of strength, speed and skills, while also refreshing themselves mentally - all things that can not happen to the extent that is required given the prolonged nature of the current season," said Nichol.
"It is important for everyone to understand that it is not a rest - the players identified will be on a structured and intensive physical training programme designed to produce the results sought and place them in the best possible physical and mental condition from which to undertake the challenges of next season and perform to their potential "
Mr Nichol said the absence of the selected conditioning players from the Rebel Sport Super 14 does create a number of challenges but from a player perspective, there were also new opportunities.
"New Zealand's rugby depth will be tested but we believe the talent, from a coach, player and administrative perspective is there. It is now up to us all to work on doing everything possible to give them the best chance of succeeding."
"From a public perspective we want to encourage the fans to be understanding of what the programme is attempting to achieve and to get in behind and support the New Zealand Rebel Sport Super 14 teams as they in turn step up to meet the challenge."