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Split loyalties may yet play a part with key All Blacks off-contract beyond 2021

By Tom Vinicombe

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While there are few players in recent years who New Zealand Rugby have lost overseas that they would have dearly loved to have kept in the country, palms will always get a little bit sweaty when key All Blacks enter the final year of their contracts.

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While the locking department is incredibly well-stocked with Samuel Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Scott Barrett, Patrick Tuipulotu, Tupou Vaa’i, Mitch Dunshea and Quinten Strange all signed until 2023, the same couldn’t be said for the front row, where a number of important cogs in the All Blacks scrum are yet to put pen to paper beyond the current season.

In fact, there are a number of players across every position whose contracts are coming to an end.

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The good news is that the bulk of the squad that Ian Foster selected for last year’s international series are locked in until at least the end of 2022.

Some, including senior figures Dane Coles, Aaron Smith, Anton Lienert-Brown and Beauden Barrett are contracted until the 2023 World Cup in France.

There are others, however, who NZR will be conscious could command a mammoth paycheck overseas and are yet to confirm their medium-term future.

Hookers Codie Taylor and Nathan Harris, props Karl Tu’inukuafe, Angus Ta’avao, Atu Moli and Alex Hodgman, loose forwards Sam Cane, Ardie Savea and Akira Ioane, halfbacks TJ Perenara and Brad Weber, midfielder Ngani Laumape and utility back Damian McKenzie are all in the finals year of their contract.

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A number of those players are only now entering the peak of their careers and will certainly remain in New Zealand but there are others who may feel their best years are behind them and that the money on offer in Japan or Europe is a safer bet than trying to force their way back into the All Blacks.

Already, Perenara is rumoured to be weighing up a move to rugby league while Ngani Laumape has been linked to French club Stade Francais.

Where things get more interesting is that there’s still much uncertainty about what next year’s rugby calendar will look like. Will New Zealand’s long-serving players want to stick around for another set of back-to-back derby matches?

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For some players, deciding whether or not to stay in NZ won’t be the only tough question; where they play their Super Rugby will be just as troubling.

Ardie Savea and Damian McKenzie, in particular, may have split loyalties.

Savea has previously expressed interest in representing Moana Pasifika, who are set to join the competition in 2021. If he’s to stay in New Zealand, potentially playing second-fiddle to Sam Cane in the All Blacks No 7 jersey, will he be content remaining in the capital or will he look to support the further professionalism of Pacific Island rugby by linking up with the new side?

McKenzie’s is a conundrum of a different sort.

The fleet-footed clutch-kicking pocket rocket was born and raised in Southland before relocating to Canterbury for his final years of schooling. He then shifted further north when Waikato and the Chiefs came calling.

Despite now spending over half a decade in Chiefs territory, would McKenzie consider a move back to the South Island?

Last year, ahead of the North v South fixture, McKenzie was somewhat torn over where his allegiance lay.

“Obviously, growing up in Southland, that’s where my roots are – and going to school in Christchurch,” he said.

“It would be nice to be eligible to play for the South Island squad but obviously [my] first provincial game was for Waikato so that’s the rules and the eligibility. If I was to play for either team I’m happy but it looks like my hand will be up for the North Island team.”

At 26 years of age, one last long-term contract could be all that McKenzie has left in him before he decides to make the most of his opportunities and head overseas.

Perhaps he’d be interested in spending a bit more time closer to home – either at the Crusaders or Highlanders.

There’s been no real indication at this stage that McKenzie is looking for a switch, but it will be something he weighs up, even if it’s only for a fleeting moment.

New Zealand Rugby, of course, will just be happy if they can lock him into a new deal to stay in the country.

The same is true for the likes of Codie Taylor and Sam Cane who are in career-best form (Cane until he got injured, of course).

There will be plenty going on at NZR right now, especially with the potential Silver Lake deal on their minds – which could determine whether some players actually stay in the country or leave – and player contracts is just one additional thing to deal with.

Expect plenty of announcements over the coming months.

Final year of All Blacks’ contracts:

2021: Codie Taylor, Nathan Harris, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Angus Ta’avao, Atu Moli, Alex Hodgman, Sam Cane, Ardie Savea, Vaea Fifita, Gareth Evans, Dillon Hunt, TJ Perenara, Brad Weber, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Bryn Hall, Brett Cameron, Ngani Laumape, Damian McKenzie.

2022: Liam Coltman, Joe Moody, Nepo Laulala, Dalton Papalii, Hoskins Sotutu, Mitchell Drummond, Richie Mo’unga, Rieko Ioane, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Sevu Reece, George Bridge, Jordie Barrett, Caleb Clarke, Will Jordan.

2023: Dane Coles, Asafo Aumua, Samuel Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Scott Barrett, Patrick Tuipulotu, Tupou Vaa’i, Mitch Dunshea, Quinten Strange, Shannon Frizell, Anton Lienert-Brown, Jack Goodhue, David Havili, Braydon Ennor, Beauden Barrett.

2024: Ofa Tuungafasi.

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Split loyalties may yet play a part with key All Blacks off-contract beyond 2021

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