All Blacks lock Samuel Whitelock has admitted he was 'probably gone' a few months ago when considering his rugby future before re-signing a four year deal with New Zealand Rugby today.
The two-time Rugby World Cup champion and Crusaders skipper will anchor a core group of All Blacks who have signed with NZR post 2019.
The 30-year-old admits until recently he was likely to be one of the players to leave New Zealand following this year's World Cup.
The new deal includes a break from New Zealand rugby to play a season in Japan later this year and exit clauses which provided some flexibility.
"To tell you the truth if you asked me a couple of months ago what we're doing, we were probably gone. Got to give full credit to the NZRU and their staff. They had a sit-down catch-up with me and put it out there what would it take for me to stay and the big one was a bit of flexibility…they've come back with that so without going through everything we've got some flexibility in there going to Japan next year.
"That's something my family and I, even though it's a young family, were quite excited about going over and experiencing something different."
Under the terms of the deal, Whitelock will take a break from New Zealand rugby at the end of this year to take up a short-term contract with Japanese club Panasonic. He will miss the 2020 Super Rugby season and return to New Zealand at the end of the Japanese Top 14 season in May 2020.
Whitelock's older brother George previously played for Panasonic in 2014 while the side is currently coached by former Crusaders coach Robbie Deans. Current Crusaders teammate Matt Todd also had a stint at the club last season.
"Being involved with a club that we have some family ties with. My brother's played over there for a season and obviously the connection with Robbie and some other current players that are there at the moment. That was probably one of the big things."
"I've got those options in there and we're just going to approach that year by year.
NZR CEO Steve Tew said: "This is a major re-signing for us and we're absolutely delighted that Sam has chosen to sign a four-year deal. He's a world-class player, an All Blacks Centurion, the most capped All Blacks lock of all time and he carries immense mana.
"His recommitment alongside a number of other key players gives us a strong foundation for the next four years. I know the news will be welcomed by fans here in New Zealand and around the world.
"As well as Sam, I'd like to thank his wife Hannah and his agent Warren Alcock who played a key role in the contract negotiations and were fantastic to deal with."
Tew said: "We know our players have a number of choices to make when it comes to where they play their rugby and we have to be flexible when it comes to renegotiating with our leading players, and that's what we have done with Sam.
"He'll have a short break away with his young family and experience a different culture, before returning to New Zealand. We think having a short playing stint in Japan as part of a long-term, four-year commitment is a win-win for him and us."
Tew said NZR's Board had also given NZR approval to allow Whitelock to be selected for the All Blacks in 2020, a decision made on the basis of his long-standing and outstanding service to New Zealand Rugby and the fact he had signed a four-year deal.
Whitelock also has exit clauses in his contract. Whitelock had already been signed through to 2020 but had decided to negotiate a longer contract early.
Whitelock added: "I'm grateful to New Zealand Rugby, the Crusaders and Canterbury Rugby for their support of myself and my family in making this decision, and I'm really proud to commit to these teams for the next four years.
"Ultimately, this decision allows me to take some time with my family to experience a new rugby environment in Japan, before coming back refreshed and ready for the remainder of 2020 and beyond. I'm pleased there is clarity around my playing future, so I can focus on the remainder of this 2019 season with the Crusaders."
All Blacks Head Coach Steve Hansen said: "Sammy is a very special player, an outstanding athlete, and has been a hugely respected leader in our group for some time now.
"Together with Brodie Retallick, he has been part of what we consider one of the world's best locking combinations, but he is very much a world-class player in his own right. He's a deep thinker on the game, cares passionately about the All Blacks and has done incredibly well in the handful of Tests which he has captained so far.
"Knowing that he has recommitted for four more years is huge for the All Blacks, the Crusaders and New Zealand Rugby. We're all incredibly proud of what he has achieved so far in the jersey and look forward to the next four years."
All Blacks Debut: 12 June 2010, vs Ireland in New Plymouth, aged 21.
All Blacks Tests: 108 (Five as Captain)
All Blacks Test Points: 25pts (Five tries)
All Black Number: 1104
Two-time Super Rugby champion
Crusaders team to play the Sharks: Will Jordan, Sevu Reece, Braydon Ennor, Jack Goodhue, George Bridge, Mitchell Hunt, Bryn Hall, Kieran read, Matt Todd, Jordan Taufua, Scott Barrett, Mitchell Dunshea, Michael Alaalatoa, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody. Reserves: Ben Funnell, Isi Tu'ungafasi, Oliver Jager, Luke Romano, Ethan Blackadder, Mitchell Drummond, Brett Cameron, Tim Bateman.