All Blacks and Blues flanker Steven Luatua leaves NZ Rugby prematurely
OPINION: Gone too soon seems the best way to describe Steven Luatua's pending departure from New Zealand rugby.
Luatua has one more season with the Blues to remind us just how good he can be before joining Bristol, soon to be relegated to the English second division.
The next few years - the prime of his career - will be spent earning exceptional money in the grind of northern hemisphere winters playing a style of rugby unlikely to suit his best assets.
When Luatua, who turns 26 in April, burst on the scene under Pat Lam some five years ago his potential was endless.
Strong, tall, athletic; his long strides and offloading abilities captured wide acclaim.
Riding the crest of a form wave countless rookies tend to savour, Luatua immediately impressed with the All Blacks the following year. It takes a special character to be called up late during a Bledisloe Cup test week and slot in seamlessly to replace Liam Messam in Sydney.
Through no fault of his own, Luatua's development was severely stunted by Jerome Kaino's homecoming. No team would turn down the chance to welcome Kaino back. But, for Luatua, it meant the Blues No 6 jersey, his favoured position and one he completely owned the previous year, was essentially blocked by the world's best.
Any wonder the young man's form and confidence hit the skids.
Luatua rebuffed the opportunity to get out of his comfort zone and link with Jamie Joseph at the Highlanders; a decision that, in hindsight, could have seen him come of age under the uncompromising former All Blacks loose forward.
Instead, Luatua has largely been forced to make a home at No 8, a challenging role for even the best loose forwards. Anyone that tells you the six and eight roles are interchangeable has no appreciation for the different skills involved; controlling the ball at the back of the scrum just one.
On a number of occasions Luatua has also been asked to slot in or cover lock - a far cry from No 6.
No doubt juggling multiple roles has contributed to his struggles to recapture that initial, breakout form.
In the All Blacks environment, Luatua's fitness was publicly criticised, and he admitted going missing in matches. Some players respond well to the stick approach. Some don't.
The All Blacks want their blindside flanker to embrace mongrel; the hit or be hit approach. Kaino and Liam Squire perfectly fit the bill for dishing out physical hurt, with and without the ball.
In his best campaign since the Lam era, Luatua consistently demonstrated last year for the Blues he had heeded feedback to be more aggressive in contact. His reward was a spot on the end of year tour, where he played one test at No 8 against Italy in Rome, with Elliot Dixon on the blindside.
Clearly, that hasn't been enough to entice him to hang around.
Luatua may have looked at the likes of Victor Vito, a similarly skillful loose forward who never quite nailed down a starting All Blacks role, and decided it wasn't worth waiting for injuries to open the national door.
As it is Luatua knew he was stuck behind Kieran Read, Kaino, Squire, Dixon and would have noted Vaea Fifita and Blues team-mate Akira Ioane knocking on the door. Throw Brad Shields in the mix, and New Zealand's depth in this area is near embarrassing.
The Blues also have St Kentigern College first XV captain Dalton Papalii coming through the ranks.
Like many players leaving these shores prematurely, Luatua had family considerations - a young child - to factor in. But he follows a stable that includes Frank Halai, Francis Saili, Charles Piutau and Aaron Cruden to chase offshore riches. Worryingly, Malakai Fekitoa could be next.
No-one has the right to tell Luatua he should stay longer and fight harder for his All Blacks dream. Only he can make that call.
But, unless he returns for another crack, Luatua will now be remembered as a fringe 15 test All Black who could have achieved so much more.