New Zealand's All Blacks are left trying to replenish their talent pool a year ahead of the 2015 Rugby World Cup as a host of stars have emigrated north to bigger European paydays.
All Blacks struggling to replace European defections
A year from the World Cup, defending champions the All Blacks face a depleted talent pool to select from, as a wealth of players opt for lucrative overseas contracts.
Although there is an overflow of quality among the loose forwards and outside backs, in other areas there are looming shortages – particularly at hooker, where there is a struggle to find three of international standard for next month’s tour by England.
History has shown opportunities can always arise for fringe players – especially in the last World Cup when the All Blacks hero was an out-of-condition, and initially out-of-contention, Stephen Donald.
Donald was recalled from holiday and thrust into the final after the three frontline fly-halves were injured.
In a fairytale ending, he saved rugby-obsessed New Zealand from deep despair when he kicked the winning penalty in the 8-7 victory over France.
But rather than hoping for injuries to again open a pathway to Test selection, a growing number of players are heading offshore, much to the annoyance of head coach Steve Hansen.
Players who put money ahead of an All Blacks jersey lack “mental fortitude”, he said ahead of naming a 35-man All Blacks training squad this week.
“It is frustrating and it is disappointing. Players here have a dream of playing for the All Blacks and then they suddenly give it up when an easier option comes along,” he said.
“It’s not their dream but they decide to go for it, and I think we need players with a bit more mental fortitude.”
Former All Blacks Mils Muliaina, Zac Guildford, Jarrad Hoeata and Corey Flynn, along with leading Super Rugby players Andre Taylor, Bundee Aki, Jackson Willison, Alipati Leuia, Tyler Bleyendaal, Chris Noakes, Jack Lam and Tom McCartney have confirmed they are heading overseas this year.
There has also been speculation that other former All Blacks Tanerau Latimer, Andy Ellis and Ben Tameifuna will join them.
Generally, New Zealanders are only picked for the All Blacks if plying their club trade in their homeland.
Hansen tempered the naming of his squad by saying there were players missing whom the All Blacks management were well aware of, in an apparent nod to World Cup veterans Flynn and Ellis.
If first-choice scrum-half Aaron Smith was injured, “We might have to bring someone senior back in,” Hansen said Tuesday, noting the lack of experience with the other two training squad members, Tawera Kerr-Barlow and TJ Perenara.
The dearth of experienced hookers also means the 15-Test Flynn remains on the All Blacks short-term radar despite signing with French club Toulouse.
Rising hookers Nathan Harris and Liam Coltman are in the training squad alongside established rakes Dane Coles and the increasingly injury-prone 35-year-old Keven Mealamu.
But selector and former All Black Grant Fox said the selection panel was “not absolutely convinced” Harris and Coltman were ready for Test rugby, which meant Flynn remained an option if required to play against England.
“We’ve got a Test series to win in June as well,” he told Radio Sport, indicating there was plenty of rugby ahead for the All Blacks before the 2015 World Cup in England.
“It’s not all about the future. We’ve got to keep an eye on that but we’ve also got to succeed in the meantime.”
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