Four of the All Blacks’ top class players have yet to be tied down by New Zealand beyond the end of this season, as reported by the NZ Herald.
The eagerness of New Zealand rugby authorities to sign them will only have been exacerbated by the news on Tuesday that Aaron Cruden has chosen to depart New Zealand for Montpellier. Despite not necessarily being a first choice player for the All Blacks, his loss has certainly raised eyebrows, but alarm bells would well and truly be ringing should any of the four remaining players follow suit.
The players in question are number 8 Kieran Read, second-row Sam Whitelock and outside backs Ben Smith and Israel Dagg.
Concern in All Black circles is much more pronounced surrounding the latter duo, as Read and Whitelock are widely expected to re-sign within the next couple of months. This is especially true in the case of Read, who would not just be giving up his All Black jersey but also the captaincy, a betrayal which would hardly endear him to the Kiwi public.
In recent years, however, we have seen Smith establish himself as a truly world-class operator dotting down for 27 tries in 6o Tests. Indeed, such is the dynamism with which he plays it’s hard to think of a player who so regularly and effortlessly wreaks havoc in opposition defences. Now 30, it would hardly be a surprise to see him move to Europe in an effort to cash in on his last remaining years at the pinnacle of the sport. Having said that, the Rugby World Cup in 2019 already looms large in the thoughts of All Blacks, and may be the ultimate factor in his staying.
If there is one player All Black whose agility is as beguiling as Smith, it is Dagg. He enjoyed a scintillating 2016 and, still aged 28, has a larger proportion of his career ahead of him than Smith. As mentioned previously, the Rugby World Cup in just over two years would surely concentrate Dagg’s mind.
The prospect of helping the All Blacks to a third World Cup in a row would be spectacular and surely garner all members of the squad a level of immortality Down Under which couldn’t be garnered while playing in Montpellier or Bristol.
The New Zealand public would likely assume that a move to Europe is to swap a higher wage for a lower standard of rugby, although recent New Zealand exports may likely contest the assumption that the quality of rugby is lower.
Ali Williams prolonged his career at Toulon, during which time he plied his trade in arguably the most devastating pack ever amassed by a club side. Doug Howlett’s move to Munster before him was also spectacularly successful, and saw him bag a Heineken Cup with the province in 2008.
Colm Egan, Pundit Arena