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Southland Stags head for greener pastures
The exodus of top players from Southland's rugby ranks could continue with at least two frontline players looking to secure their futures.
Stags hooker Brayden Mitchell has signed with Waikato for this year's NPC, and second rower Josh Bekhuis and flanker Tim Boys are both looking at their options.
Bekhuis and Boys have played more than 150 games for Southland between them.
Rugby Southland general manager Brian Hopley said it was frustrating to lose a player like Mitchell, who has been groomed for several seasons for a starting role with the Stags.
"It's not what you want, to see a guy go, but it's a personal choice that a person has to make and there's not a lot you can do about that."
A New Zealand under 20 representative in 2009, Mitchell has been part of the Stags squad since that time, but has only managed 21 games in four seasons.
Injuries and an inability to force his way past veterans Jason Rutledge and David Hall has stymied his career, although that hasn't denied him further honours, having been involved with the Highlanders at some level since 2010.
To Mitchell's credit, he had kept at least one member of staff who had worked hard to develop his career abreast of his plans throughout.
Hopley believed the union had done what it could to retain the 24-year-old.
"I think he was looking for a change, the feedback I've got is that he thought he needed a change, to resurrect or enhance his career."
Hopley wouldn't say which other players are off contract at the moment, although when asked specifically about Bekhuis and Boys, he confirmed they were on the list.
"We've got a few other players to sign and we are talking to them through their agents.
Hopley said a list of players the union had contracted could be made available today. Negotiations with Bekhuis were being held up while he sorted out his Super Rugby contract with the New Zealand Rugby Union, Hopley said.
Touted early in his career as a future All Black, Bekhuis has played a lot of rugby for the Highlanders but struggled to reach a level that would attract the attention of the All Black coaches.
It's understood he's been frustrated in the past with the type of game he's been asked to play for the Highlanders and he could look at other franchises, or even a move overseas.
Rugby Southland has seen a host of players exit stage left over the past two years as the union cut costs. In the wake of Southland's 2009 Ranfurly Shield win over Canterbury, an ineffective board allowed then-chief executive Roger Clark to sign players to contracts the union couldn't afford.
Southland rugby went close to bankruptcy before being bailed out for the second time in three years by community funders and the New Zealand Rugby Union.
Those historic contracts have slowly come due and Rugby Southland has seen several players leave for better opportunities.
Eight of the players who helped Southland regain the Ranfurly Shield from Canterbury in 2011 - Glen Horton, Kendrick Lynn, Matt Saunders, James Wilson, Scott Cowan, Joe Tuineau, Chris King and David Hall - have left, with Saunders the only one remaining.
Add Mitchell and Jimmy Cowan, who headed to Gloucester as his All Black career wound up, and possibly several others to that list, and the exodus begins to look like a flood of equally biblical proportions.
- © Fairfax NZ News