It's been a constant refrain in New Zealand rugby: "We've got the depth; let them go - someone'll take their place; there's always a promising young guy who can take over."

That kind of talk stopped abruptly after the first three weeks of the All Blacks' international calendar. New Zealand rugby may not exactly be digging the bottom of the barrel but the spade is clanging alarmingly against the sides as excavations reveal the emptiness of our stocks.

Finally, the player drain chooks have come home to roost.

That much was clear from last weekend's highly uncomfortable 27-6 victory over an overjoyed Italy. For the first time, many in playing, coaching, media and spectator ranks felt that ground zero had been reached; we had arrived at the point where close to a critical mass of people not really up to the jersey had been selected in it.

This wasn't just a poor test match; a below-par performance. Some of the more senior players were also at fault. It was, apart from a few rare moments, a worrying signal that maybe All Black rugby had slipped a notch. Maybe two. Or more.

This from the land that produced the Baby Blacks' in 1986 - when a nation rejoiced that, with the top 30 or so players banned because of their participation in the rebel Cavaliers tour of South Africa, a team of the pinkest, shiniest, raw recruits significantly dealt to a battle-hardened French side with names like Blanco, Lagisquet, Sella, Charvet, Berbizier, Dubroca, Garuet, Haget, Condom and Champ.

That 1986 team had seven of the pack making their test debut, including Herald on Sunday columnist Sean Fitzpatrick. And don't be fooled by that august name - many of his forward cohorts that day were either never heard of again or were seen only infrequently at test time. Gordon Macpherson and Brett Harvey never again pulled on the jersey and Mark Brooke-Cowden and Kevin Boroevich played only two more tests each (although the latter played 23 games for the All Blacks).

It's not selection. Graham Henry and his assistants can't be held up to ridicule as most agree, including this writer, that those selected made up pretty much the strongest team available, taking injuries and absences into account. There is a case to be made that Henry didn't need to make seven changes - four of them rotated - from the second test against the French and that Tony Woodcock and Jimmy Cowan, to name but two, would have been handy starters against the Italians. Isaac Ross, rotated out to make way for Ali Williams originally, certainly was.

So what is to be done? The options are:

* Continue to build a new team - but this time from depleted stocks where, at the least, ascension to valued All Black' ranks will take much longer than normal and bring a few unpleasant defeats.

* Select All Blacks who reside overseas.

* * *

That last option is the one most reviled. Most knowledgeable judges contend that opening the door to All Black selection would increase the offshore flow and ruin domestic rugby.

No, it wouldn't, according to Piet Heymans, chief executive of the South African Rugby Players Association. SARPA has been in the forefront of the decision, with the South African Rugby Union, to allow players to play overseas, to be selected for the Springboks while they do so, and to get them back as soon as possible when they have had a taste of their OE.

Late last year, it was estimated that about 250 New Zealand rugby players - several of them All Blacks in the prime of their playing career - were pursuing professional careers overseas. About the same time, it was estimated that 100 South Africans were doing the same thing. Precise figures are not available but it is thought that figure has now risen closer to 200.

When first five-eighths Andre Pretorius signed his contract to play for the Force in 2010, he became the 40th Springbok currently playing overseas. It's about to get worse.

Most of the Bok heavyweights are currently at home - because of the lure of the Lions series. For players who have won a Super 14, the Currie Cup and the World Cup, the Lions was the last mountain to be tamed. Several are expected to take up playing positions in Europe or elsewhere.

Even with their greater player numbers, the Springboks are expected to find this talent drain taxing.

One who has already signalled his intentions to shift to Europe, talented midfield back/fullback Francois Steyn, (playing for Paris Metro next year) says the ability to return to Bok colours was a big drawcard and is clearly targeting the 2011 World Cup.

"South Africa has a policy that foreign-based players can play for the national side. I haven't given up on representing my country at the next World Cup," he told L'Equipe. "After the 2007 World Cup, I always told myself that I'd come to play in France. I remember walking around Paris looking at the magnificent streets packed with history, drinking coffee and eating chocolate and banana crepes - maybe too much."

Another current Springbok, Juan Smith, has already spoken of his fears that the exodus will damage South African rugby.

"We need to keep the core of this side together," he said, "especially with the next World Cup just two years away. We will be defending champions and we need the experienced guys to stay here. We have all been desperate to play against the Lions because it is an opportunity you only get once in your career but what happens after that is a worry."

* * *

"Making overseas players eligible for the Springboks has definitely not affected our domestic rugby," said Heymans. "The thing is that we are talking about a smaller group of elite players - there are only so many positions available, countries like France are now taking steps to reduce the number of foreign players anyway."

South Africa has permitted players residing overseas to be selected for the Boks since last year, although locally-based players are supposed to be given priority. Previously, like New Zealand, they would not select players living overseas.

"South Africa had to face the reality that we would never stop these players from leaving," said Heymans. "We did a lot of work with SARU to help them to see that."

The question then was not just how to retain players but how to return them to their homeland. They hit on four main avenues:

1. Creative ways to earn more money for top players - "We are doing a lot of work in this area, including making players shareholders in businesses. The one I can tell you about is [Springbok lock] Victor Matfield who came back when he was offered a three-year image rights' project with a dental insurance company here," said Heymans.

2. Saracens - South African interests bankroll the London club and are on the board, former Bok Brendan Venter is the coach and eight or nine South African players are on the Saracens books, meaning they can have their OE but are always in touch with home interests.

3. Return clauses - Increasingly, South African players, like promising young centre Bradley Barritt, have emergency return' clauses in their contracts. They have to return home if an SOS comes from their home union; the Sharks, in Barritt's case.

4. PR initiatives - When Matfield returned from playing in France, he spread it around that his sojourn had not been particularly enjoyable and that he was glad to be back home with friends, family and familiar languages.

"So I think we have certain degrees of flexibility that are helping control the situation," said Heymans, who added that he did not think the drain from South African rugby after the Lions tour would be as bad as feared.

However, he did concede that South African rugby's "biggest challenge" was one familiar to New Zealand rugby - the loss of "second tier" players. There are already rumblings that the drain is having an effect, with Springbok players held back for the tests, many fans complained that the sides who played the Lions in the build-up matches were far weaker than normal.

"Many of these guys earn about 700,000 rand [about $140,000]," said Heymans, "and they can easily double that. Also, a lot of them figure out they are not in a coach's plans, decide to go overseas, earn good money and then look at coming back in a year or two when the coach has changed. "It's not an easy problem to solve - as most of the money and the focus is on the top players and there just isn't enough money for everyone."

If that's the case in South Africa, which has many more billionaires and corporate investors able to buy a stake in a club like Saracens and to offer third-party incentives, what hope does little old New Zealand have?

But maybe the time is indeed here to re-look at the stance of not selecting overseas-based All Blacks.

DEPTH POOL OR PUDDLE?

Forget for a moment that front-line All Blacks such as Carl Hayman, Greg Somerville, Jerry Collins, Byron Kelleher, Nick Evans, Rico Gear and maybe Doug Howlett are sorely missed.

We have also never replaced key second-tier' players and, as you peruse these names, think about the All Black problem areas of tighthead prop, No 7, first-five and wing: Clark Dermody and Campbell Johnstone might be handy props now; Chris Masoe, Marty Holah (was he ever replaced?), Craig Newby and Mose Tuiali'i handy loose forward replacements. Not to mention Isa Nacewa, Sam Tuitupou and Scott Hamilton. Latest to leave the country - Hurricanes and Blues first-five Jimmy Gopperth.

Leaping Springboks

Going: Francois Steyn (to Racing Metro), Andre Pretorius (Western Force), Schalk Brits (Saracens).

Thought to be under offer: Jaque Fourie, Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana, Bakkies Botha, Schalk Burger, Ryan Kankowski.
May return overseas: John Smit, Victor Matfield.

Already playing overseas: 40 Springboks, including CJ van der Linde, BJ Botha, Wikus van Heerden, Butch James, de Wet Barry, Gary Botha, Derick Hougaard, Danie Coetzee, Brent Russell, Cobus Visagie, Joe van Niekirk, Ashwin Willemsee, Lawrence Sephaka and Marius Joubert.

But the key name in the overseas brigade is Bradley Barritt - a 22-year-old Sharks inside centre, not the usual trekker to Europe after a long career and not yet a Springbok. There are fears that more like Barritt - the Republic's second tier' - are also beginning to leave their home base.