New Zealand Rugby is not prone to alarmist statements or snap decisions so their imminent move to facilitate sabbaticals with overseas clubs emphasises how difficult player retention has become.

Player exodus is nothing new but the vast majority used to depart after a four-year World Cup cycle. Now, the lure of the All Blacks and chance to feature at pinnacle events is not enough for some even within the match-day squad. Regardless of age, securing financial futures is fast becoming top priority.

NZR previously broke the mould and set a trend in the Southern Hemisphere by allowing non-playing and short-term sabbaticals for the likes of Dan Carter, Richie McCaw and Ben Smith.

Rather than sit idle and watch talent — from experienced to emerging — continually picked off, NZR is again preparing to move with the times and be flexible by forging relationships with overseas clubs.


Details are yet to be finalised but the Herald on Sunday can reveal NZR plans to offer sabbaticals with select clubs in Japan and Europe — those they feel have sound coaching structures and support systems.

Specific clubs at this stage are being kept under wraps but Wayne Smith will do some work with Japan's Kobe Steelers, and Robbie Deans coaches the Panasonic Wild Knights in the same league. In Europe, there are many Kiwi coaches — Todd Blackadder at Bath just one.

The theory is by attempting to facilitate offshore stints, NZR can allow leading players to cash in for one or two years and then guarantee their return.

New Zealand Rugby head of professional rugby contract negotiations Chris Lendrum. Photo / Supplied
New Zealand Rugby head of professional rugby contract negotiations Chris Lendrum. Photo / Supplied

While the players are overseas NZR will, in theory, maintain contact and believe these players won't be run into the ground as they are by demanding owners at many of the French Top 14 clubs.

Still, for an organisation steadfast in its policy of not selecting players from overseas, actively helping All Blacks spend time abroad represents a major shift.

Convincing agents to send players to designated clubs will prove challenging, especially when salaries elsewhere are greater, but NZR is clearly attempting to think outside the box.

"There's a range of things we can try to do to control our own destiny. Part of that is absolutely working closely with partners offshore," NZR head of professional rugby Chris Lendrum told the Herald on Sunday.

"There can be benefits both ways by working with entities in Japan or the European market. That absolutely has to be on the table for us — and is. It's a real focus for us over the next six months to look at what else we can do from a system and contracting point of view because we have to try and retain as many of our leading players as possible.


"We're entering a period of greater risk than we've seen for quite some time. We're having to constantly adjust our relativity in response to offshore activity so it is a really challenging period. The offers from the French market have jumped considerably and there's more room and competition in the UK."

There's a range of things we can try to do to control our own destiny.

When Luke Braid and Nasi Manu, two quality loose forwards just below the All Blacks, left New Zealand two-to-three years ago they are thought to have accepted around €200,000 to €300,000 ($338,000 to $507,000) per season. Now offers for players of similar stature have jumped to the €400,000 to €500,000 category.

French clubs have been boosted by record broadcast deals, and the UK's 12 Premiership teams are all scrapping for marquee players.

In late 2016, NZR and the Players' Association invested an extra $70 million into the player payment pool, increasing the pot from $121 million to $191 million over the next three years. And yet still they struggle to compete.

"At the time we did the new collective I thought we were in a good space," Lendrum said.

"We committed extra money; we targeted senior players and it was really well received but you never really catch up."

Not just those at the top end may benefit from this sabbatical scheme.

"It's tough. Seeing players like Brad Shields and Charlie Ngatai go is very challenging for us. Those are our experienced leaders in our Super Rugby environments; players who help develop the younger players like Damian McKenzie and Rieko Ioane.

"It's that depth in leadership that helps drive our Super Rugby and All Blacks. If we lose a critical mass of players in that space we leave ourselves at risk. Normally we get into this window and we feel a little bit more comfortable because we're so close to a World Cup and by and large people want to be involved but the world is changing in front of us."

Indeed, while most leading All Blacks are locked in to the 2019 World Cup, fears are understood to be mounting about what the New Zealand rugby landscape could look like come 2020.

No doubt new talent will emerge, but Super Rugby and so, too, eventually the international game, could suffer dramatically if key players exit at the same rates.

"In this climate we're not prepared to take anything for granted."

World Rugby boss Brett Gosper, speaking at the inaugural Hamilton sevens, admitted the flow of players from the Sanzaar nations north was an issue but offered no solution.

"I'm sure there's concern," Gosper said.

"There's a little bit of an imbalance happening and there is an attraction with the big dollars in countries like France.

"We have heard noises from the French federation that they will work to cut those [import] numbers which would be good news for France as well as the unions from which those players are migrating north.

"The All Blacks have been very strong at keeping their own but there will always be the player that heads north because they are happy to find riches elsewhere. They've got to make that choice about whether that's worth sacrificing a place in their national side.

"There's not a lot we can do about that at World Rugby — there's pretty strong market forces. But it's up to the local unions to make it as attractive as possible to stay in the country."