As we are now entering the midpoint of the 2019 World Cup cycle, some of the southern hemisphere’s leading players have either already signed lucrative deals with European clubs, or are considering making a move north of the equator.
Already we have seen the likes of Kurtley Beale, Matt Toomua and Liam Gill leaving Super Rugby behind to join clubs in England or France. This summer will be no different, with a number of players yet to sign new contracts.
Indeed, it appears as though All Blacks are in demand, as the New Zealand Rugby Union have yet to conclude contract negotiations with some of their star names. Already reports freely circulate in the media connecting the likes of Aaron Cruden and Ben Smith with moves north.
Both players are among the best in the game in their respective positions, and could therefore command massive salaries from any obliging suitor. Furthermore, both players might be tempted to sign one year deals with any perspective European club before returning to New Zealand to make themselves available for selection ahead of the 2019 World Cup.
At 30 years of age, the lucrative offers Smith has probably already received must be turning his head. The money available in France would be more than enough to secure Smith’s future, with kiwi news site Stuff reporting that he can command a salary in the region of €1.6 million per season in the Top 14.
Although the NZRU have increased the amount of money available to keep their top players at home from NZ$15.9 to $24.8, would they really want to go toe-to-toe with the Top 14 and inflate salaries even further?
As a result, while the additional “top up retainer payments” will provide a greater incentive for players to remain in New Zealand, there will continue to be casualties.
Dropped from Steve Hansen’s World Cup squad and having to deal with the emergence of Nehe Milner-Skudder and Waisake Naholo, this time last year it seemed as though Israel Dagg’s All Black career was over.
However after impressing with the Crusaders last season, the fullback was recalled for the test series against Wales and even removed a clause in his contract allowing him leave last summer.
Nevertheless, Dagg’s contract is set to expire next summer with Leinster and Toulon reported to be interested in the 61 times capped All Black.
As one of the game’s best players, it comes as little surprise to see Ben Smith linked with big money moves to Europe. To date the media have reported interest from Pau and Munster, but the Irish side have since put distance between themselves and the fullback.
Nevertheless, Smith has a choice to make, as he may never be offered such lucrative deals again.
After an amazing breakthrough season in 2015, Nehe Milner-Skudder has become something of a forgotten man after suffering a shoulder injury in March of this year.
Nevertheless, the Hurricanes winger remains one of the most potent outside backs in the game, with an ability to step past any would be defender. As such, the NZRU should really be making Milner-Skudder a priority signing.
However, despite the fact that his contract his due to expire after the conclusion of the 2017 Super Rugby season, no such news has of yet been announced, leaving open the possibility of a move north.
With any number of French and English clubs chasing Aaron Cruden, in all likelihood he will leave the Chiefs next summer.
The talented fly-half spent much of his career playing behind Dan Carter and just as it seemed that he would inherit the famous number 10 jersey, Beauden Barrett very quickly became the best player on the planet.
In any event, as Cruden is 27 years of age, he could conceivably sign a deal with a European club and return to New Zealand before he turns 30.
After keeping Sonny Bill Williams from the clutches of Toulon last summer, the NZRU might have a fight on their hands to keep hold of Malakai Fekitoa in 2017.
Seen as the successor to Ma’a Nonu, Fekitoa’s pace and power can unlock any defence and would be ideally suited to the physical nature of the Top 14. Indeed, the New Zealand Herald recently reported that the centre even met with Mourad Boudjellal as the All Blacks prepared for their clash with France last month.
However, given that Ireland tested the midfield depth available to the All Blacks in Chicago, the NZRU might be advised to offer Fekitoa a substantial contract.
On this week’s edition of the Oval Office Podcast, we speak to Jamie Roberts and look ahead at the festive fixture list.
Alan Drumm, Pundit Arena