'It's a concern every time you lose a player because it's taking away another brick from the wall,' says All Blacks coach Steve Hansen of the exodus of talent to European clubs.
‘Eventually the wall will fall over’: All Blacks talent drain concerning to Steve Hansen
The decision of All Blacks fly-half Colin Slade to head to Europe after the 2015 Rugby World Cup came with a rider Tuesday that the exodus of New Zealand players is not yet over.
Slade is the 10th All Black so far to announce he is heading offshore at the end of the year after the 27-year-old was offered a deal reportedly worth EU€660,000 (Dh2.6m) a year to join French club Pau.
Still to confirm their post-World Cup futures are Julian Savea, Sam Cane and Ryan Crotty and, coupled with expected retirements and the impact of the Olympics, coach Steve Hansen is bracing for a difficult 12 months following the September-October tournament in England.
Cashed-up European clubs who once targeted players in the twilight of their careers, assisting the All Blacks into an easy rollover of talent, are now creating a talent drain by luring up-and-coming stars.
Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder, who stands to lose two fly-halves to French clubs in Dan Carter and Slade, put a positive spin on the losses.
“It’s a good opportunity for some young guys to put their hands up and for us to start again almost,” he said.
But with the New Zealand sevens squad also able to call on All Blacks for the Olympics next year, Hansen admitted 2016 would be “one of the most difficult years” for All Blacks rugby.
“Not only are we losing people as it’s time for them to go overseas or retire, and we’ve lost one or two other people we didn’t want to lose, but we’re also going to lose some guys to the Olympics,” he told the stuff.co.nz website.
“We could lose up to 15 players out of our current 31-man squad, which is massive.”
The 17-Test Slade may not have been the All Blacks’ first choice fly-half but he was crucial to Hansen’s plans because of his ability to cover wing and fullback, his sound defence and coolness as a goalkicker.
New Zealand’s player exodus also includes Carter (Racing Metro), Ma’a Nonu (Toulon) and Conrad Smith (Pau), who are near the end of their international careers.
But Charles Piutau (Ulster), Francis Saiili (Munster), Tom Taylor (Bayonne) and Frank Halai (Wasps) are just starting theirs.
Tight forwards Jeremy Thrush (Gloucester) and Ben Franks (London Irish) are also considered valuable squad members while not necessarily first-choice selections.
Indispensable skipper Richie McCaw, 34, deflects questions about his future, but the indications are he will retire at the end of the year along with fellow Test centurions Keven Mealamu, aged 36, and Tony Woodcock, 34.
With the bank accounts of the European clubs bulging, New Zealand Rugby Players Association chief Rob Nichol expects more All Blacks to depart despite the effort going into keeping them in the country.
“They’ve still got another couple that they’re working through but we’ll just let that process pan out,” he told Radio Sport.
“We’re going through that two-three month frame where guys are making really big decisions about their future.
“You’ve got guys that are committing (to New Zealand) and you’ve got guys that are heading overseas. We certainly feel that we’re taking a bit of a hit at the moment but it’s a long-running battle.”
At Super Rugby level, in the space of 12 months the Crusaders will have lost three All Blacks – fly-halves in Carter, Taylor and Slade – while former New Zealand Under 20s star Tyler Bleyendaal left for Munster last year.
“It’s a concern every time you lose a player because it’s taking away another brick from the wall, and if you take too many away, eventually the wall will fall over,” Hansen said.
“I understand in some circumstances there’s a really good reason for some people to do it, but in others I just wish they’d hang on and chase their dream a bit more.”
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