Four big names remain to be retained by New Zealand Rugby after confirmation Aaron Cruden has signed with French club Montpellier, writes Campbell Burnes.

If we assume captain Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock will re-sign some time in the next few months, just Ben Smith and Israel Dagg of the front-liners are not tied up beyond this season.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen is building a squad for the 2019 World Cup and would love most of his men to stay. But he will be losing prop Charlie Faumuina to Toulouse after the Lions series, along with Cruden, who has signed a three-year deal reportedly worth $1.2 million a year.

Faumuina may prove a bigger loss than Cruden, as the tighthead depth is not as pronounced as in the first-five ranks, where Lima Sopoaga is ripe for promotion behind Beauden Barrett. Hansen will be heaving a sigh of relief that Owen Franks put pen to paper last month.

Advertisement

Smith is next in line and, at 30, it would be nice to think he will stick around to 2019 after a superb four years in black where he has made himself an indispensable, world-class performer.

When Smith was the bolter for the 2009 northern tour, former Otago Daily Times rugby scribe Ali McMurran told me this lad from Green Island would grow to be a great All Black. I was sceptical then, but he was right.

Sixty tests and 27 tries, nary a bad game among them, testify to that. Smith is already a very fine All Black, but three more years will enhance his greatness. However, he is a family man now, so that is a consideration when faced with a massive amount of wedge from the north.

Dagg is an interesting case. His 2016 form, either at fullback or on the right wing, was so dynamic for the All Blacks that he may just want more of the same, still at just 28. Will he enjoy his footy as much as at, say, Toulon, where you cannot be world-class other than in your bank balance?

There is a precedent for All Blacks departing in July, mid-season. Justin Marshall played against the 2005 Lions, though by then had ceded the starting halfback berth to his old sparring partner Byron Kelleher. Marshall then headed to Leeds, his time done at 32.

Where once it was the norm that those All Blacks in their early 30s would often head offshore, now they are going in their late 20s.

If New Zealand Rugby fail to re-sign Smith and Dagg, so be it. Their exits will erode the outside back stocks, but Damian McKenzie will come straight into the fullback reckoning, as will Rieko Ioane and Nehe Milner-Skudder on the flanks.

Depth is not a concern among the All Blacks, and their succession planning is rather more sophisticated than in 1998, when Sean Fitzpatrick, Frank Bunce, Zinzan Brooke and Olo Brown all departed around the same time to general gnashing of teeth and the shame of five test losses on the bounce.

Over to you, Chris Lendrum, New Zealand Rugby contracts man.

This is no major exodus, but there is work to do, and it may not be enough.