A wet weekend is a reminder that summer has passed its peak and another rugby season is about the begin. It starts as it often does, with angst about the number of good players who have gone, or announced their intention to go, to earn a fortune in Europe or Japan.

None of them were in the All Blacks' starting XV but some of them were in the squad and all of them are players New Zealand Rugby is sorry to lose in their prime.

The good news is they are replaceable; part of the reason most cash in when they can is that they can see younger players coming up and threatening their position in the All Blacks selectors' plans.

But NZ Rugby is sufficiently concerned about the exodus to have just announced a new initiative to let players chase the big money overseas without losing their value to the game in this country.


In essence, the scheme will let players go to clubs overseas that NZ Rugby has vetted. By trying to ensure the club will maintain the player's training at New Zealand standards and not burn him out with an excessive playing schedule, the union hopes the player will be able to slot back into rugby here, perhaps even the All Blacks, with much still to offer.

It is a sensible idea, a natural development of the "sabbatical" that some of the best All Blacks have been given in recent years. They went for an agreed year or two and could return to their contract with NZ Rugby.

The risk for the union in widening the eligibility, particularly if it is guaranteeing the players can resume their New Zealand contracts on their return, is that they might not have the same value after a year or two's absence. Very few players have been able to reclaim All Blacks positions after a period overseas.

If the union can enhance their chances of returning in top form it will be to the mutual benefit of the players and the union that has invested heavily in their development.

It has yet to be seen whether richly endowed rugby clubs in Europe will accept the conditions NZ Rugby's plan implies. They will want to extract full value from the players they are paying so well. But if they are getting the services of a first-choice All Black for a season or two they may think the terms are worth the outlay.

The scheme's prospects of acceptance may be increased by the number of a New Zealand and Southern Hemisphere coaches at European clubs these days. Their presence must give NZ Rugby greater confidence that the club's environment can maintain the attitudes and skills the players must retain.

The rugby union has constantly had to adapt to the lure of overseas riches since the game went professional more than 20 years ago. Its decision to restrict All Blacks selection to those playing in New Zealand has managed to retain enough talent to make the All Blacks stronger than ever and enable them to keep setting the benchmark of the game.

If it now can build two years of European earnings into the career expectations of loyal players at their peak, it could be a good deal for the union, the players, the overseas clubs and the game.

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