OPINION: The question everyone in New Zealand rugby should be asking themselves right now is this little curler - is the All Blacks jersey as powerful as it used to be?
I think we're now entitled to ask it. And be a little bit nervous about the answer we might get.
We're seeing players now who have genuine opportunities to be All Blacks well into their careers choosing their security ahead of the chance to wear that jersey.
It's not happening in all cases, but it's enough of a trend, when aligned with things like player sabbaticals, to create a situation where all of a sudden player stocks in certain positions are depleted.
Craig Clarke and Richard Kahui have both recently decided to take deals offshore and now there's talk Rene Ranger will be next to go. That's two All Blacks and another who's been very close.
Instead of staying and chasing the black jersey, they're choosing to take their game offshore.
We're also seeing players who have dual eligibility, such as Sean Maitland, throwing their lot in with other countries. That's another concern, because there's a lot of time spent developing them here.
Everyone recognises it's a young man's game these days but it's getting younger and younger as players are being forced to make tougher and tougher decisions.
In some ways it's more of a worry because it's not our top-tier All Blacks being targeted, but the next level down - our very best Super Rugby players.
You can almost live with it when it's an ageing All Black, a Carl Hayman for example, because you've got an Owen Franks in behind.
Clarke was one of the locks in behind our All Blacks. Now he's gone, and we have to dig even deeper in the talent pool.
Jerome Kaino was just 28 when he left, and the 2011 player of the year. You have to wonder if the loyalty card can be played now?
We're talking about people young enough to be All Blacks for a long period.
Almost as concerning is a situation where the NZRU haven't been given the opportunity to counter-offer. That didn't happen with Kahui, and you've got to wonder does it happen now with Ranger?
It's got to be a worry when the All Blacks coach says he didn't know about one of his top players leaving. That's disappointing. It doesn't allow the NZRU to be in the market, and maybe even bend over backwards if need be.
Choosing not to talk to the union is disrespecting the organisation that provided you with the opportunity to make your name in the game.
The All Blacks selected you, or the Crusaders picked you. You didn't pick them.
I wonder if some people are forgetting that.
But the more players continue to make these decisions, the more the jersey loses its power. If that happens, the NZRU will have to find a lot more money just to stay competitive in the player marketplace.
If you do the sums, you could say the jersey's worth a couple of hundred thousand dollars a player.
Don't get me wrong. I'd never dispute a guy's right to secure his future. But it's a new reality now confronting New Zealand rugby.
In my era it seemed to be All Blacks coming towards the end of careers who left. In a funny way you can afford to lose them. It's the next tier you don't want going.
With Conrad Smith taking a sabbatical later in the year, and without Kahui and maybe Ranger there, you might be looking at Robbie Fruean or Tamati Ellison for November's tour. Or being creative with a Ben Smith or Ma'a Nonu.
These are the sort of quandaries we now face with the changing face of the All Black jersey.
If we had any doubts the Blues were the real deal, they're gone after Friday's victory over the Crusaders. They're playing with composure and accuracy, especially on defence, and with the weapons they possess on attack you have to say they're now contenders.
When the game was tight in the middle of the second half and they needed to make a stand, they did it. They applied pressure on defence, made good decisions and didn't allow the Crusaders to play their game.
This also reinforced why Ranger would be missed. The real Rene Ranger has arrived, in the right shape for Super Rugby. His ability was never in doubt, but now he's in the game for 80 minutes, he's active and enjoying it.
The Crusaders were rusty and predictable, and looked surprised by the level of the Blues.
They talked about unshackling a new brand of rugby; instead they looked predictable. Moving Israel Dagg back to No 15 should be the first step back.
Jeff Wilson played 71 matches for the All Blacks, including 60 tests.
- Sunday Star Times
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