The good vibes that had been flowing out of the New Zealand Rugby Union's HQ hit a speedbump this week, with confirmation that Mils Muliaina and Rodney So'oialo would bank their future rugby earnings as yen.

But how sorely is New Zealand's depth really being tested? With 18 players who appeared in France in 2007 still technically available for the All Blacks and the vast majority of players from last year's Grand Slam tour likely to commit to the NZRU beyond 2011, have the doomsayers been proven wrong?

"With guys like those and Joe Rokocoko and Sitiveni Sivivatu, we're actually pleased for them that they've got good contracts moving into the next phase of their careers," said Neil Sorensen, the union's general manager of professional rugby.

If the All Blacks have had a figurative "spine" in recent years it's been Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Mils Muliaina, Keven Mealamu and Brad Thorn, and three of them have re-committed beyond the World Cup. Thorn will turn 37 next year and, all due respect to Muliaina, one of the finest fullbacks to have graced the game, there's hardly a lack of options in No 15 beyond 2011.

What really mattered, surely, was the retention of Dan Carter and Richie McCaw.

NZRU chief executive Steve Tew noted that McCaw and Carter's value could be judged by the fact they've won 88 per cent of the 51 tests they have appeared in together.

"That alone shows how invaluable they are to New Zealand rugby," Tew noted at the time McCaw signed.

But Tew would know there were other reasons to chase their signatures hard.

Perception may not have a price, but it can be invaluable. You have to make people think you're winning the "war" against the Northern Hemisphere clubs and no matter how many fish-hooks and loopholes there are in the contracts of McCaw and Carter, the simple fact is the country's two best players remain the property of the national body through to 2015.

So are they winning?

"I don't think you can make that assertion. You can always do better," said Rob Nichol, manager of the Rugby Players' Association.

Nichol pointed to the example of John Afoa, headed to Ulster in the offseason, as one that got away. Jared Payne, John Schwalger and Neemia Tialata were others who are leaving with plenty to offer.

Luke McAlister is headed to Toulouse having gone only a fraction of the way towards fulfilling his potential in an All Black jersey.

"You can't ask our franchises to compete for players they want to keep when they've got their hands tied behind their backs," Nichol said, pondering whether it was time to allow private equity into the five Super rugby franchises. This would probably give the franchises more financial clout, but it could also dilute the rugby union's ability to ensure that the All Blacks had first call on players at all times.

Sorensen said the union "was pretty pleased" with its player retention plans looking ahead to 2012.

There was no longer, he said, a fear of Europe and the money that was offered. Ireland and France have been the biggest buyers in recent years, but there was going to be a renewed threat from English clubs after they passed a resolution that would see one overseas "marquee" player exempt from their salary cap.

"That's going to put them back in the game," Sorensen said.

"Back then they were paying huge money for the likes of Carl Hayman, and now they will still be offering huge money for our top 10 or so guys.

"Someone like Jimmy Cowan [who has re-committed to the NZRU] can expect 200,000-300,000 euro ($350,000-$530,000) offers, but we get that every year."

Along with Carter and McCaw, there was a huge "win" for the NZRU when Mealamu signed on for two more years.

With those three in the books, focus has now shifted to Owen Franks, Andy Ellis, Ma'a Nonu, Hosea Gear, Isaia Toeava, Piri Weepu and Sonny-Bill Williams. Hurricanes duo Cory Jane and Andrew Hore are considered a high risk of leaving but the NZRU has not given up all hope.

"To lose any one of those would be a blow," Sorensen said. Sorensen admitted poster-boy Williams was now taking up most of NZRU contracts manager Chris Lendrum's time, with the union hopeful of keeping the boxing midfielder in rugby beyond the World Cup.

Even if the union get most of its targets, the worst mistake they could make, according to Nichol, is to think they are winning the battle.

True, but the next four years are looking a lot rosier than some predicted just a few months ago.