Southern hemisphere nations are braced for a mass exodus of players following next year’s Rugby World Cup that kicks off a year from now in New Zealand.
The 2007 edition of rugby union’s showpiece event saw an unheralded number of players from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa heading to leagues in Europe on financial packages they could but dream of back home.
John Smit, fresh from captaining the Springboks to victory in France, hot-footed it straight to Clermont and outside-half Butch James to Bath.
Harder hit were the All Blacks, who bid farewell, among others, to Carl Hayman, Chris Jack, Aaron Mauger, Luke McAlister, Sam Tuitupou and Byron Kelleher.
Despite being wooed by the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU), Hayman, widely regarded as the best prop forward in the world, snubbed a move back to his homeland ahead of the World Cup to instead sign for cash-rich Toulon in the French Top 14.
NZRU chief executive Steve Tew has made it clear, however, that he is not going to get into a bidding war with northern hemisphere clubs and will not overspend on player retention.
But he will no longer offer contracts that allowed players to disappear after the World Cup and the aim is to offer contracts through to the end of 2012.
“We don’t want to get into a cycle of the best players disappearing in the middle two years of a World Cup cycle. We don’t want young players to come through and then get a slap in the face,” he said.
The NZRU general manager of professional rugby, Neil Sorensen, said they were also impressing on the players on the fringes of the All Blacks squad how close they are to being permanent internationals.
“We have seen that, because of the decimation caused by injuries, our top 40 to 50 players are really only ever a couple of games away from making the All Black 22. That’s a point the coaches will make to all of them,” he said.
Sorensen said they do not want a repeat of 2007 when nearly half the World Cup squad quit New Zealand.
Of the 140 professional players in New Zealand, 55 are already contracted through to 2012 or beyond. McCaw and Carter have also said they may remain in New Zealand longer after next year.
Carter has already flirted with playing overseas when granted a ground-breaking sabbatical to join Perpignan in 2008, although an Achilles injury kept him out for the majority of their season.
Perhaps the nation most suspect to a mass exodus is South Africa, with a clutch of veterans nearing the end of their careers almost certain to seek foreign shores.
Already overseas are the handy front-row duo of Schalk Brits (Saracens) and Brian Mujati (Northampton), while Francois Steyn plays at Racing-Metro in the Top 14 but was recalled for the Boks’ final two Tri-Nations games.