By WYNNE GRAY
Royce Willis is the latest high-profile New Zealand rugby casualty, opting for a lucrative contract in Japan next year instead of the chance of an All Black place at the World Cup.
Although prop Deacon Manu will be named in the Chiefs and Blues squads today as his contract details are sorted for next year's Super 12, Willis will be missing from the Chiefs list.
He joins Canterbury midfielder Daryl Gibson and Waikato team-mate Bruce Reihana as big names in the rugby export business.
"I understand that is happening," New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew said.
"There are a small number of players out of the 140 players needed for the Super 12 who have not resigned and whose contracts expire at the end of 2002. There are some All Blacks in that group."
Willis may have played his last game of rugby in New Zealand because a serious calf injury has taken him out of the NPC and contention for the All Blacks' three-test, end-of-year tour.
He could apply for a dispensation for the Super 12, but the New Zealand Rugby Football Union would probably treat him as ineligible, as they did when Blues fullback Adrian Cashmore asked for a similar indulgence before moving to Japan.
All the Super 12 coaches and chief executives will gather in Wellington today with NZRFU staff to finalise their squads for next season.
Each franchise can protect up to 24 out of their allowance of 28 players. Any franchise can leave as many gaps as they want in that optional 24 and then make several choices.
They could, in rotation, choose from 25th to 28th players in other squads or draft any other available players.
"It is a big day and one we look forward to," Tew said.
"There are a lot of player rankings to consider, and those involve the national selectors, provincial coaches and age-group coaches. The most weight will come from the national selectors because of their neutrality.
"There are a number of issues which will get people talking."
One case will be that of Manu, the Waikato prop who wants out of a deal he signed to transfer to Auckland.
Manu and his representatives, and officials from Waikato, Auckland and the NZRFU met in Wellington on Monday for mediation about the contract wrangle.
"There was no progress, but it was a good opportunity to hear the issues and try to find some common ground," Tew said.
"We have to rule very quickly."
Tew was uncertain about a deadline but thought an opinion would be given to the feuding franchises today.
Whatever that is, it is unlikely to appease Auckland or Waikato, who are both determined to use Manu next season.
Highlanders coach Laurie Mains hopes to draft Wellington midfield back Paul Steinmetz to his squad and was sure new wing Brad Fleming would be a strong replacement.
"I'm sure Paul will be playing for the Highlanders," Mains said.
He was also confident that his injured All Blacks Tony Brown, Anton Oliver and Tom Willis would be fully fit for the February 23 start to the eighth season of Super 12.
"Tony Brown's injury stems from a back problem, and I'm comfortable now he'll be back for us at the end of January.
"I'm a lot happier about Tony than I was a couple of weeks ago."
* The Chiefs' manager this season, Doug Wilson, is likely to be promoted to the All Black job replacing Andrew Martin.