Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Former stars in freefall

Jerry Collins (No 6), Rodney So'oialo (No 8) and Chris Jack (right) were once key All Blacks but fell swiftly from favour. Photo / Getty Images
Jerry Collins (No 6), Rodney So'oialo (No 8) and Chris Jack (right) were once key All Blacks but fell swiftly from favour. Photo / Getty Images

Former Wallaby Rocky Elsom's freefall into obscurity prompted Gregor Paul to compile his top 10 sudden rugby downfalls.

1. Jerry Collins

In 2007, Jerry Collins was a genuine enforcer and captained the All Blacks for two games at the World Cup. By 2008, he was strangely quiet; not the same player. He barely featured for the Hurricanes and, knowing he was nowhere near the All Blacks, he asked for an early release. He joined Toulon in July 2008 and the word from France was that he trained irregularly, played poorly and was generally not interested. They offloaded him a year into his two-year deal and he shifted to the Ospreys where he was better but still nowhere near the player he'd been. He shifted to Japan last year.

2. Isaac Ross

A former New Zealand under-21 representative, Isaac Ross began 2009 with the aim of nailing a regular spot with the Crusaders. He went beyond that - Ross commanded the lineout and romped around in the loose, earning his first cap against France in June.

The public had fallen for him but the All Black selectors hadn't. They left him out of the end of year tour party, as they had stats that said Ross didn't hit enough rucks and when he did, he lacked impact. "I think Isaac really needs to understand that the only person that can fix Isaac's problems is Isaac," said All Black assistant coach Steve Hansen. Those problems were never fixed. The Crusaders punted him to the Chiefs, where he struggled for game time and was then told he wasn't wanted by new coach Dave Rennie. He was on his way to Japan.

3. Sione Lauaki

Sione Lauaki began the 2010 season as the surprise choice as Chiefs captain. It proved to be the catalyst for him to self-destruct. Lauaki was yellow-carded in his first game and, during his suspension, was involved in a late night altercation in Hamilton and found guilty of assault. When he returned, he wasn't fit enough, so didn't play well. Things deteriorated in late April when he drove to Auckland after a game in Hamilton - falling asleep at the wheel and crashing. He ended up back in court and, rather than face having his contract terminated, he signed with Clermont where he lasted a year before moving on to Bayonne.

4. Rodney So'oialo

In 2008, the New Zealand Rugby Union went all out to retain players critical to the All Blacks winning the 2011 World Cup. They signed So'oialo for three years and paid him well. It looked inspired: the All Blacks won 13 of their 15 tests and So'oialo captained the side when Richie McCaw was injured. But he hit some kind of invisible wall shortly after and was horribly out of sorts in 2009. The All Black selectors left him out of the June series - saying he was being rested. When he came back to the Tri Nations, he didn't look like a test player and lost his starting spot to Kieran Read. By the following year, So'oialo was making only the Hurricanes bench and was selected by Wellington really on the basis it would have been criminal to have been paying someone so much and not picking them. In 2011, he just didn't play - he had a mystery injury and wasn't sighted. In June, he asked for an early release to play in Japan. The NZRU couldn't say yes quickly enough.

5. Rocky Elsom

Rocky Elsom began 2011 with high hopes that he'd end the year hoisting the Webb Ellis Cup. But he missed much of Super Rugby with an injury and his efforts in the Tri Nations reflected his lack of game time. After the All Blacks wiped the Wallabies at Eden Park, coach Robbie Deans dumped Elsom as captain. Elsom drifted further and was a passenger at the World Cup. He then missed most of Super Rugby in 2012 and signed with Japanese club Kobe Steel. But they terminated his contract last month when he failed a fitness test and now he's hoping that Narbonne, a moderate club in the French second division, will throw him a lifeline.

6. Joe Rokocoko

A regular All Black for most of 2010, he had a poor test against England in November and was never picked again. Realising his World Cup dream was probably over, he signed with Bayonne after the 2011 Super Rugby season. Just 28 when he arrived in France, the ambitious club expected big things. Rokocoko didn't score a try all season and was booed by the home fans by early February. He was dropped from the first team - the highest paid player and he was stuck on the bench. Bayonne were ready to sell him had they been relegated but, as they discovered, there weren't any interested buyers.

7. Taniela Moa

Called up as cover for the All Blacks in 2008, Taniela Moa was unemployed by the end of 2009. In the space of 18 months, he went from the cusp of winning a test cap to being ditched by both the Blues and Auckland. His head was scrambled by a relationship break-up and as his personal life went into a spin, his weight ballooned, his conditioning disappeared and his game collapsed. He did manage to play for the Chiefs in 2011 and win a place in the Tongan World Cup squad and a contract with Pau in France.

8. Stephen Donald

The unlikeliest hero plucked from his whitebaiting holiday to kick the winning penalty in the World Cup final last year, it was sweet redemption for one of the more maligned players. But despite earning cult hero status, reality hit home in the following months. He joined Bath and after an okay start, his form faded and he was dropped from the first team, asked to play in reserve games for a mid-table English club. There was even talk he would be released a year early from his contract."There has been a frank conversation with him after some poor performances but he has come back strong," said Bath chief executive Nick Blofeld. Except Donald was still on the bench.

9. Chris Jack

Chris Jack lost his All Black berth and joined Saracens. They wondered what they had bought. He was well off the pace. His contribution was so limited that Jack was one of 12 players axed. He earned the ire of his team-mates and the wider Northern Hemisphere when he returned to New Zealand and suggested UK rugby was soft. Daily Telegraph columnist Mick Cleary responded: "Jack did so much for the Sarries, that they won precisely nowt and are now in turmoil. Jack was a pale imitation of the player he was in New Zealand colours. Who does that reflect on?"

10. Kevin O'Neill

Called up in 2008 when there was an injury crisis at lock, the 2.01m O'Neill came off the bench against South Africa in Dunedin. The All Blacks lost and O'Neill was never seen at that level again. The following year, despite reaching the Super Rugby final with the Chiefs, O'Neill was overlooked by the All Blacks; Bryn Evans, Ross and Tom Donnelly were deemed to be ahead of him. He joined the Melbourne Rebels in 2011 but managed only five appearances before retiring at the age of 29 to pursue business interests.

- Herald on Sunday

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