New Zealand's fragile player market could take a potentially precedent-setting blow if Julian Savea pushes to quit his contract after Super Rugby and head to France.
In the past two years, nine regular All Blacks have left for overseas clubs. A further 10 who have represented the All Blacks in the past four years have quit and it is believed recent test players Dominic Bird and Elliot Dixon will be the next to depart.
Concern is mounting that while the national body has been able to persuade the elite players to commit long-term to the All Blacks, it is losing its ability to keep fringe test players.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said at Thursday's Halberg Awards: "We're very fortunate to have a talented pool of people but the downside is that everyone wants to come in and buy them.
"It's the old adage, we want to develop one but we have to develop four - one for us and one for each of those other environments.
"It hasn't got to the point where it's disastrous - the contracting people are doing a magnificent job and the rugby union are supporting us magnificently, and there's [still] a massive desire to keep pulling on the black jersey."
The sense NZ Rugby is losing its grip could be heightened if Savea joins the exodus later this year. He unwittingly finds himself in a position to swing the balance of power in the player market.
He signed a four-year deal in May 2015 that made him one of the highest paid players in New Zealand history, earning an estimated $800,000 a year.
But his star has fallen far and fast since he re-committed. Having struggled through 2015 and 2016 due to a lack of conditioning which led to a loss of form, he was dropped by both the Hurricanes and All Blacks last year.
Still 27, and with two years of his contract to run, Savea is determined to strike form with the Hurricanes this year and force his way back into the All Blacks, who begin their campaign in June with three tests against France.
Hansen has been patient and encouraging - insisting the big wing, known as The Bus, has what it takes to return to the national fold - but Savea is going to have to battle past not only his own demons, but an extended list of back three challengers, including Rieko Ioane, Ben Smith, Israel Dagg, Jordie Barrett, Waisake Naholo and Nehe Milner-Skudder.
Savea's mission is not without hope but he has been around long enough to realise his chances of winning a test recall are 50-50 at best and will need to consider his career should his All Blacks ambitions be quashed.
Savea didn't test the offshore market during his last renegotiation, but several French clubs said they would have offered in excess of €1 million a season to have signed the then 24-year-old, which would have made him the highest paid player in the world.
It is understood that Savea's market value in Europe hasn't been negatively affected by his loss of form in recent years, and that Toulon would be eager to sign him as a replacement for the veteran Bryan Habana.
Other clubs will inevitably lodge interest and the situation will become delicate for New Zealand Rugby.
Savea will have 18 months of his contract still to run, but NZR could be willing to overlook that in order to trim their wage bill by jettisoning a high earner who is no longer cutting it.
They may also feel they need a compensation payment to grant an early release to Savea - a fee paid by the purchasing club.
Compensation payments are not uncommon - it's often the case that departing New Zealand players are released a month before their contracts expire. Typically NZR will set the compensation payment at about one month's salary for the player in question.
But in Savea's case, given the length of time his contract still has to run, NZR could legitimately set the compensation fee at $1.2 million.
The temptation to recuperate such a significant sum will be high, but the danger is that it could encourage major European clubs to target other high profile All Blacks mid-contract, with a precedent set by NZ Rugby that it is willing to trade someone if the price is right.
European clubs have already shown they are willing to pay major fees to get what they want, with Montpellier stumping up almost $2 million to extract No8 Louis Picamoles one year into a three-year contract with Northampton, and Leicester paying $500,000 plus a key player to sign England first-five George Ford halfway through his contract with Bath.
There are mixed feelings at NZR about the widespread introduction of compensation or transfer fees. Although they bring in revenue, they don't serve as a deterrent or barrier. In fact, many European clubs take pride in being able to pay them.
But such is the pressure in the market at the moment, NZR is having to review and consider all its options and available mechanisms to keep players in New Zealand.
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