By CHRIS HEWETT
LONDON - Josh Kronfeld, the former All Black flanker whose fondness for painting anti-nuclear symbols on his headgear contrasted sharply with his penchant for turning in World Cup performances that bordered on the atomic, has finally signed for England's leading club Leicester after long weeks of chewing the fat over a move to the northern hemisphere.
If Kronfeld is an unlikely target for the English champions and marginal favourites to win a first European Cup title this weekend, he will not exactly weaken the Tiger-striped pack.
In this game, the strong only get stronger.
Quite what the Midlanders intend to do with the celebrated Otago breakaway remains to the seen.
It beggars belief that they are paying him a hatful of money with the intention of employing him as Neil Back's deputy; by the same yardstick, it is highly unlikely that the Leicester hierarchy consider Back, one of the great Welford Road folk heroes and an automatic choice in England's back row, to be past his sell-by date.
The most obvious move would be to pair them together, either on a left-and-right basis or with Kronfeld at blind side.
That solution raises problems of its own, though, for Leicester are positively dripping with back row talent.
Lewis Moody, an outstanding understudy for Back over the past three or four seasons, is still in situ; the blind-side contingent includes such able practitioners as Paul Gustard and Adam Balding; the No 8 berth is already a matter of dispute between Martin Corry and Will Johnson; and the Tigers academy is so productive that a loose forward as good as Mark Soden has pushed off to Northampton in a bid to get a look-in at senior level.
Perhaps the key to the signing is to be found in Dean Richards' exasperation with the sheer volume of rugby now being played in England.
Within minutes of the publication of next season's fixture list, which begins in September and runs all the way through to mid-June, the team manager went public with his misgivings.
After winning three Premiership titles on the bounce, Richards can afford to mix and match his starting line-up while prioritising his tournaments. Very few other clubs are in so comfortable a position.
Kronfeld, now 29 and the holder of 54 All Black caps, was typically laid back about the forthcoming challenge.
"There was more money on offer at other clubs, but money wasn't the be all and end all," said the surf-loving, harmonica-playing beach bum from the South Island.
"The thing I like about Leicester is the fact that they are doing well, that the club environment is very solid. I'm looking forward to playing English club rugby, not for the cash or the fame, but because I really love playing the game. I felt a bit stale in New Zealand, but I still have this wicked passion for grovelling around on the floor and having the odd run. I've talked my future through with Dean and I'm in an excited frame of mind."
Richards, who played against Kronfeld when New Zealand took England to the cleaners in Cape Town in the semi-final of the 1995 World Cup, was unusually buoyant about his new signing.
"Josh will bring with him a wealth of experience, a playing style we want and the kind of character and work ethic already in evidence at the club," he said.
"Above all else, he is a great player. Here in England, the season is becoming longer and longer. Neil Back is looking tired, Lewis Moody has been carrying injuries all year, and I know full well that we are almost certain to be without Neil for eight or nine games leading up to Christmas. An injury to one of the other guys would leave us short on the open side."
Leicester, who lose the services of their outstanding Wallaby centre Pat Howard after Saturday's Heineken Cup final with Stade Francais, are now speaking to Rod Kafer, another fellow Australian who turned out at first-five for his country at Twickenham last November.
Kafer is no bums-on-seats man, like Kronfeld, but he can certainly play a bit.
If both Antipodeans find their way into the Tigers' ranks next term, the chances of anyone relieving the champions of their title will not be terribly good.