Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Home is where the heart is

The All Blacks have a growing pool of talent to draw from as marquee players shun lucrative overseas contracts to play the domestic game.

Stephen Donald may be one of many 2011 World Cup heroes available for selection for the 2015 tournament. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Stephen Donald may be one of many 2011 World Cup heroes available for selection for the 2015 tournament. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Sonny Bill will be back, so too Jerome Kaino. Mils Muliaina is already here, Brad Thorn is still kicking around and word out of Europe is that Hosea Gear may be quitting Toulouse to return home and make a bid for a World Cup place.

It's not beyond the realms of possibility that Richard Kahui may decide to have a crack at another World Cup if his shoulders can survive another season in Japan and who knows, perhaps the hero of the last campaign - the man who heroically bailed out his nation - will be in New Zealand next year ... just waiting once again for the emergency call. If the grapevine can be believed, Stephen Donald, Beaver, could be in New Zealand, all snug once again in his beloved Waikato jersey.

It's a staggering statistic that of the 33 players New Zealand used at the last World Cup - Gear, Donald and Aaron Cruden were called in as injury replacements - only eight are likely to be categorically ineligible for selection.

John Afoa has signed a three-year deal with Gloucester; Andrew Hore has retired; Ali Williams, Anthony Boric, Jimmy Cowan, Adam Thomson and Isaia Toeava are playing overseas and likely to still be doing so in 2015 and Zac Guildford will join Clermont later this year.

That's it, though - they are the only men who can, with some authority at this stage, be ruled out of contention. Thorn should really join that crew. At 39 he's not interested or quite at that level any more - but there's always the outside chance of freak injuries.

Corey Flynn continues to play good rugby and despite the desire to find a young hooker, the veteran Crusader could yet make it to England - especially if fellow old-timer Keven Mealamu can't go the distance. Andy Ellis and Piri Weepu are on the outer, but as was evidenced last year, when the latter joined the squad in the Four Nations, are players coach Steve Hansen will call on at short notice if needs be.

As for Muliaina, at 33 and with 100 caps behind him, he'd say he was done with test football. But what if he shines for the Chiefs, defies his age and plays excellent football as he can?

In reality, there are probably only between 10-15 players from last tournament's squad in contention to go round again: Tony Woodcock, Mealamu, the Franks brothers, Sam Whitelock, Kaino, Richie McCaw, Kieran Read, Dan Carter, Ma'a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Cory Jane, Israel Dagg, Sonny Bill Williams and Cruden.

What is illustrated by the fact there are 25 players from the last tournament - or may soon be that many - still eligible for All Black selection in 2015, is the success of New Zealand's high performance retention strategy and the lure of domestic competitions here.

Of the 2007 squad, there were only 13 players still eligible to be picked in 2011.

The bulk of that 2007 squad were playing offshore in 2011 - and that's how it was back then. Once a player felt he'd done his international dash or was surplus to requirements, they would head straight for the airport. The offshore market was seen as a better place to be - more money, more fun, more experiences.

But not now. The likes of Thorn, Weepu, Ellis and Flynn could command big salaries offshore, even now, but they would rather stay even knowing their test prospects are slim to non-existent.

That's a serious endorsement for the domestic set-up and not a bad emergency talent pool to have available just in case.

- Herald on Sunday

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