Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Aaron Cruden heading to France?

Aaron Cruden is off contract with the New Zealand Rugby Union next year.
Aaron Cruden is off contract with the New Zealand Rugby Union next year.

New Zealand's largely successful player retention strategy is facing a tense few months as it tries to keep Aaron Cruden and Owen Franks who are both understood to be fielding significant offshore interest.

Tonight reports emerged Cruden was being wooed by a French club with a $1.2m salary.

Player retention has been a battle New Zealand Rugby has mostly won in the last decade but there's a handful of key men coming off contract next year and not all of them have indicated they will be easily persuaded to stay.

Of greatest concern for the national body is Cruden. The 27-year-old began the June series as the All Blacks' first choice first-five but he suffered a neck injury in the second test and in his absence Beauden Barrett took hold of the No 10 jersey and has established himself as arguably the best playmaker in world rugby.

A French rugby magazine has claimed Cruden could be poised for a big-money move.
A possible salary of $1.2 million per season to play for Montpellier in France has been mentioned by Midi-Olympique for the Chiefs pivot.

It's being reported that Cruden may be eyed as a possible replacement for Demetri Catrakilis when New Zealander Vern Cotter takes over the coaching reins at Montpellier next season.

Valuers du Rugby reports Cruden is already in negotiations with Montpellier and the annual salary he is being offered is $1.54m including premiums.

While Cruden picked up game time in the Rugby Championship, he'll have to determine what his longer term future looks like if he stays in New Zealand beyond next year. The selectors have nothing but total faith in his abilities and know that injury rates among first-fives are high. They also believe playmaking is a two-man role and that they need two experienced operators in their match day 23.

But Cruden, who has a skills portfolio and CV that puts him in high demand in Japan and Europe, will have to decide if that's a big enough lure for him to commit through to 2019 or whether he would rather head offshore for a new challenge.

In the last two years the packages offered to those with undisputed star quality have taken quantum leaps in value. Daniel Carter signed with Racing Metro for a reported $2.5 million a season - a deal that made him the highest paid player in the world then. But just months after he arrived in France, major clubs in England were reportedly offering even bigger offers in the wake of new rules which allow clubs to keep one marquee player off the salary cap.

Cruden is the sort of player leading clubs would target with such a deal and he has potential to become better paid than Carter if there is a club that feels it needs to break the bank to attract a world class No10.

Also on the danger list are tighthead props Owen Franks and Charlie Faumuina. Speculation out of France has been strong that Faumuina has already signed with Toulouse and will join the Top 14 club after the Lions tour next year.

Neither he nor his agent will confirm the speculation and say an announcement regarding his future will be made in due course.

Franks, who is still only 28, is also off contract next year and is understood to be assessing offshore interest. That doesn't mean he's in any imminent danger of making his mind up or not interested in signing a contract extension, but NZR chief executive Steve Tew did hint at the end of last week that some negotiations to keep players are proving challenging.

He stressed that contract offers coming from overseas markets were continuing to rise beyond levels that made any financial sense and that while they had recently enjoyed a big win in persuading Beauden Barrett and Sonny Bill Williams to sign through to 2019, they were far from certain to keep all the players they want.

Losing both Franks and Faumuina would be a major blow and leave the All Blacks in a pickle as they don't yet have an experienced third tight head prop in their mix. Nepo Laulala is the player they would like to develop but he was ruled out of action in 2016 due to serious injury.

Other players whose contract will expire next year include Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock.

- NZ Herald

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