In December, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said keeping two of Ben Smith, Israel Dagg or Aaron Cruden in New Zealand beyond this year would be a good outcome.

Hansen remains on track for his best-case scenario for while Cruden has confirmed he is leaving for France, Smith may announce soon that he has committed to the All Blacks through to the 2019 World Cup.

There's never any guarantee until there is ink on the contract, but the expectation is that Smith will confirm he is staying in New Zealand. As welcome as that news will be, it will be more relief than elation for Hansen as Smith has probably always been the one of the three he has seen as the most likely to stay.

When Hansen presented his two-from-three theory last year, he would have been almost certain that Cruden's mind was already made up to join Montpellier.


He hoped, rather than knew, that Smith was exploring his overseas options just to know what they were rather than with genuine intent to move. And with Dagg, he simply didn't know largely because the only person with less idea was Dagg himself.

Nearly two months on and the picture has unfolded much as Hansen expected. Smith, if reports out of France are to be trusted, has indicated to Pau that he is not coming.

This is neither a change of heart nor confirmation that New Zealand Rugby came to the party late with an improved offer. To be certain he was making the right choice about staying, Smith had to know what exactly he would be rejecting. To make an informed decision, negotiations with Pau had to get right down to the detail.

Nine times out of 10, leading All Blacks with plenty still to offer, explore the offshore market simply to confirm what they already know - that they are better off staying where they are. Smith was a late developer.

It took him an age to believe in himself and become the player he now is and having reached his promised land as vice-captain and regular starter, it would be surprising to see him give all that up when every good judge would consider he's still in his prime.

Hansen will have a sense of confidence about Smith but not in relation to Dagg who remains something of a swing voter. It's still a giant guess where his future lies. He is being courted by Leinster and Toulon and while a cursory glance at New Zealand's outside back stocks may lead some to conclude that it won't be such a big deal if Dagg heads off, a more astute reading would be to see it as a major blow.

At Hansen's disposal are power wings such as Julian Savea and Waisake Naholo. The magic feet and trickery of Nehe Milner-Skudder is another quality option and Rieko Ioane brings a bit of pace, power and swerve.

But for all that these four offer, none have the breadth of skills of Dagg. Hansen has been clear - if Dagg continues to play the way he did in 2016, he'll be an All Black starter.

Dagg knows Hansen will be true to his word. The uncertainty is whether he can continue to play the way he did last year.