Norm Maxwell remains available for All Blacks duty against the Lions, even though he is believed to be close to signing a contract with an unnamed Japanese rugby club.

Maxwell's agent Warren Alcock yesterday confirmed the story published in Monday's New Zealand Herald that the 29-year-old lock was looking for an early release from his contract, which runs until the end of the year, but said his client was considering offers from Italy as well as Japan.

The injury-prone lock was last year close to signing with Italian club Calvisano, but All Black coach Graham Henry convinced him to stay on for the European tour and a possible crack at the Lions.

"We have certainly put them (New Zealand Rugby Union) on notice that his future is something we want to talk about," Alcock said.

"He wants to either finish and play no rugby at all or go to Italy or Japan where there is less rugby."

Maxwell said yesterday that he would comment on the reports in a "couple of weeks", fuelling speculation that his future plans would be decided over the next few days.

The Herald said yesterday that it understood Maxwell had agreed to terms with the Japanese club but still needed to sort out details with the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU).

The 33-test veteran is in Nelson recovering from surgery on a broken finger in his right hand.

There has been suggestions that Maxwell needed to join his new club before June 30 to be eligible for the start of the Japanese season in September, which would jeopardise his involvement in the Lions tour.

His absence will put an even greater strain on the All Blacks locking resources with Waikato's Keith Robinson also injured and unlikely to play and Auckland's Ali Williams is serving 12-week suspension.

Chris Jack is the only test lock in action, although Jono Gibbes and Reuben Thorne were touted as utility alternatives last year, after Brad Thorn and Simon Maling took up overseas contract.

Former All Blacks lock Ian Jones said the NZRU couldn't afford to let Maxwell go before the Lions series given the situation of the locking position in the country at present.

The Japanese Rugby Football Union (JRFU) said that Maxwell could fulfil any All Blacks commitments as long as the paperwork for the transfer was completed by June 30.

"He needs to be registered by June 30 to play in September, but we only need the papers. He does not need to be here for that," Akane Kagawa told The Press.

"As long as all the necessary documentation is submitted, he can stay in New Zealand after that date," said Kagawa, who added that the union had not received any transfer request for Maxwell from any Japanese club or New Zealand.

NZRU deputy chief executive Steve Tew admitted it could become harder for players to get releases if the list of requests continued to grow.

Justin Marshall has joined David Holwell, Jason Spice, Isaac Boss and Bruce Reihana as players recently finding an early way out of NZRU contracts.

Carlos Spencer, who is contracted until the end of next year, would need a similar deal to act on recent negotiations with English clubs.

"It would become an issue if it became an epidemic," Tew said.

"If there continues to be a long list of very good reasons to ask for a release then we may be less likely to allow them to break it."

Tew admitted Maxwell would be a player New Zealand rugby would not want to lose ahead of the Lions series, considering the well-documented lack of depth at lock.

While the union was aware of Maxwell's struggles with injury after he requested time out last year, Tew said it had not been told of his desire to leave early.

Crusaders chief executive Hamish Riach refused to comment yesterday.

- NZPA