Auckland's predicted All Blacks exodus has begun, with Hoskins Sotutu leaving the province to link up with Counties Manukau.
Last month, the Herald exclusively reported unrest within the Auckland camp, with a review and later feedback from Blues chief executive Andrew Hore believed to have conveyed fractured relationships between some players and coaches and the need for better communication channels.
Assistant coach Filo Tiatia, the former All Blacks and Hurricanes loose forward, resigned, while well-placed sources alleged that relationships within the team have deteriorated since their breakthrough title in 2018.
The Herald's report revealed that Sotutu was in talks with Counties, after fellow Auckland All Black Dalton Papalii headed south the season prior, and now Counties have confirmed the signing of the All Blacks No 8.
Sotutu is unlikely to play often for the province if his All Blacks career continues to develop, but is excited to join the province which his father Waisake played for while still at school.
"I'm very excited to join Counties Manukau," Sotutu said. "Dad got his start in rugby in the region and has played for the Steelers. I also live in South Auckland and have a number of connections to Counties Manukau.
"I'm excited to be joining an organisation with such a passionate rugby community and I hope to develop my leadership and grow as a player at the Steelers," Sotutu added.
"Hoskins is first and foremost a top young man making his mark at the highest level and he's also passionate about helping grow the community game in Counties Manukau," said Steelers head coach Tai Lavea.
"We look forward to him adding to our exciting group for the NPC season ahead and have no doubt his experience at the highest level will rub off in a positive way on our squad."
Sotutu is unlikely to be the last high-profile name leaving Auckland before the 2021 provincial season, with All Blacks prop Ofa Tuungafasi understood to have approached Northland.
Fellow All Blacks Caleb Clarke, Akira Ioane and flanker Blake Gibson were also understood to be among others weighing their futures with Auckland. Ioane is thought to have told Blues teammates he could represent Northland, as his grandfather on his mother's side lives in Kaikohe.
Counties have also signed former St Kentigern College first XV captain turned Blues midfielder Tanielu Tele'a from Auckland.
Auckland Rugby Union chief executive Jarrod Bear told the Herald last month that homegrown All Blacks could leave the team.
"There are a couple of players we're continuing conversations with, along with their agents," Bear said.
"Player movement is a thing of modern-day times. We want to secure as many of the best players as we can so we'd like to keep hold of all players developed in Auckland and give them every opportunity."
All Blacks typically play few, if any, games for their provincial teams in the modern age, unless working their way back from injury, as the domestic season clashes with test commitments.
Provincial unions are, however, fully reimbursed for their All Blacks' salaries. High-profile recruits are often used in sales pitches to attract members, and with duties in the community, which is likely where Sotutu's value would boost Counties.