Big Read: Can the All Blacks keep their star trio?

By Gregor Paul in Paris

It's standard fare that this final test in Paris will be sold as the defining clash of the All Blacks' season. One more good performance, one more win and the All Blacks will travel home having sent a precise message about their determination to stay atop the rugby world.

But the All Blacks have already defined themselves this year. They have laid down their marker, shown everyone that losing almost 900 test caps at the end of last year wasn't such a big deal.

What happens against France will, though, have potentially significant, influence in the minds of those senior All Blacks such as Israel Dagg, Aaron Cruden and Ben Smith who are coming off contract next year. This is the last All Blacks test before all three are likely to make a decision about their respective longer term futures.

The performance and the result at Stade de France won't be the driving force behind their career planning: it won't be the single thing that determines their direction.

Hardly.

But as the last game of the year, it will be the one that sits in their memory over the summer months and it will go a long way to helping them assess where this All Blacks team is at in terms of its development.

A long way because in some ways this test poses a bigger mental challenge than the game against Ireland. The All Blacks had their motivation handed to them in Dublin by the defeat they suffered to the Irish in Chicago. The emotional tank was full.

But this week the challenge is for the players, many of whom were physically drained by their efforts last week, is to find that same motivation. Can they bring the same attitude in Paris that they had in Dublin? Can they improve their discipline, ball retention and mix up their attacking game to better effect?

"It has been a big year for this group losing as many people as we did at the start of it," says All Blacks coach Steve Hansen. "There was obviously a question mark around what would happen around the World Cup and I think they have stood up extremely well. They were asked another question after Chicago - did they have the strength of character to right that wrong and now the next question, I guess, is can they stand up and play well again after doing what we did in Ireland?"

A big performance from the All Blacks against France would suggest this young team has the potential to build a legacy every bit as impressive, if not more so, than the 2012-2015 team that they succeed.

A big performance and this All Blacks side will fly home knowing they have the chance over the next few years to write their own special chapter in history: that they may be building towards another epic era.

If that is the vibe they create, it will, inevitably, have some bearing on how Dagg, Cruden and Smith feel about the prospect of staying in New Zealand through to the next World Cup.

It's a huge decision for all three individually, but more pertinently, the All Blacks as a collective. Hansen doesn't want to lose any of them.

He is backing them all to still be capable of playing a relevant and meaningful role for the All Blacks in 2019. He doesn't believe that any of them have done their dash on the test scene and he's told them as much.

"We don't want anyone who is a vital ingredient to the team to leave and he [Dagg] is a pretty vital ingredient we think," says Hansen.

"He missed the last World Cup. Is it certain he's going to go through to the next one? Well, if he keeps playing like he is now, he's been told that he will because you would be foolish to leave him out given the form he is in.

"I have said to him is that if you think your time in the jersey is done then you probably should go. But I don't think his story is finished yet personally. So that is what he has got to work out and it is the same for Crudes [Aaron Cruden] and with Bender [Ben Smith]. All three of them have to work out do I think my story has finished?

"From my point of view all three of them have still got a lot deliver and give to this team and at this point I would see all three of them going to the World Cup."

Smith and Dagg in particular are players that can't easily be replaced. Damian McKenzie, Rieko Ioane and Nehe Milner-Skudder are the next generation of back three players, but none have the experience or all-round skills of Smith and Dagg.

It's much the same with Cruden. He has almost 40 tests behind him and the calm and certainty he brings off the bench - and the pressure he exerts on Beauden Barrett to keep performing to retain the No 10 jersey - is critical. Lima Sopoaga is an emerging option, but he's got a long way to go to be the player Cruden is.

Retaining these three players is a big part of the 2019 World Cup plan and Hansen is hoping that Dagg, Smith and Cruden all saw how the likes of Dan Carter, Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith before them, all faced similar decisions at about the same point in their respective careers.

All three of them could have headed offshore in their late 20s, but none did. They all felt their All Blacks story would only end in their mid-30s. And they were right to back themselves - all of them playing in peak form in 2015 and all of them still able to head offshore after that and earn big money.

"That's [the example of Carter et al] an obvious part of the argument and we have talked to them about that," says Hansen. "Whatever anyone gets offered today it will be twice as much tomorrow because that is the way it is.

"If you think back to five years ago overseas contracts have probably quadrupled. If he [Dagg] is to stay and play as well as he is then they will still want him after he has finished at the World Cup. It will still come down to what he wants and we can't twist his arm and we have given him a clear message along with the other two and they will make their decision based on what is right for them. If they stay it will be great but if they go we will have to work on what is next."

- NZ Herald

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