New Zealand players are keener than ever to remain playing in the country, according to New Zealand Rugby Players' Association boss Rob Nichol.
And, somewhat ironically, Nichol said the recent case of Hurricanes loose forward Faifili Levave heading to Japan proves it.
"The whole way of putting this is that the other option is you lose the player completely," Nichol said. "We have not lost this guy.
"We are patting him on the back, saying: ‘thanks for your service and we'll see you back here soon.' I believe we know our players better than ever before.
"We know what they want to achieve and we want to create a compelling environment that they want to be a part of.
"Previously we were losing guys for good.
"Now we are saying: OK, they want to experience living overseas, they want to experience another culture, another playing experience, but then they want to come back.
"Believe me, we were not having those conversations before."
Nichol said it was wrong to suggest the NZRU had become relaxed about players opting out of the national provincial championship.
Levave will skip Wellington's ITM Cup campaign after activating an out clause in order to take up a short-term contract with Honda but is returning to the Hurricanes next season.
Nichol said it should be seen as a win for New Zealand rugby that the player and his agent, Warren Alcock, had worked so hard on the deal.
"It was not a matter of Levave and Warren rocking up and saying this is what we want," Nichol said. "It happened over weeks and weeks and in fact a number of months, and he [Levave] clearly wanted to stay here and play."
Nichol noted Crusaders lock Tom Donnelly as another recent example of a player heading overseas but clearly wanting to play their top level rugby in New Zealand.
"It's about us staying ahead of the game. If we go back a few years and we have always been straight up about it . . . from a player's perspective the ITM Cup was being pitched at the same level as Super Rugby and we believed that had to change."
The competition's review led to players being contracted directly to their franchises, and the structure and the format of the ITM Cup was changed in order to keep all 14 provinces relevant.
Nichol believes the model is working, with provinces looking primarily within their own boundaries and spending less on players.
And while he acknowledged there was less involvement from All Blacks and that some players could follow Levave's lead, he did not believe it would damage the ITM Cup.
"Is it going to get any younger?
"I don't think so. It's become younger in the past few years but I think it will plateau now.
"Is it still a cool competition?
"I think so and I think people enjoyed it immensely last year when a number of younger players emerged."
Nichol still believes there is a good mix of youth and experience, and while a "fair few" players would go overseas every year, surveys suggested the vast majority would prefer to stay in the country.
While the Blues were hit hard this season, Nichol pointed to the high retention rates at the Chiefs, Hurricanes and Highlanders as examples of an encouraging trend.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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