When the Springboks won their third World Cup title in Japan late last year, they did so with nine squad members playing their club rugby outside of South Africa.
The likes of Sale Sharks halfback Faf de Klerk and Toulouse wing Cheslin Kolbe were instrumental to their side’s success, but they wouldn’t have been available to play had head coach Rassie Erasmus not abolished restrictions around selecting offshore-based players earlier that year.
Without the presence of those individuals, it’s questionable as to whether Siya Kolisi would have ever lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in Yokohama five months ago.
That highlights not only the importance of those players in the South African set-up, but it also illustrates the value of being able to pick the best possible players regardless of where they play around the world.
A further eight Springboks from that squad have since moved on to clubs in Europe and Japan, and new boss Jacques Neinaber is set to take the helm of a national side that certainly looks no weaker as a result of those transfers.
Such a selection model has been met with resistance in some corners of the globe – none more so than in New Zealand, where players are only considered available for All Blacks selection if they’re domestically-based.
With New Zealand Rugby and Super Rugby clubs unable to match the finances of wealthy French, English and Japanese clubs, there remains a lingering fear that a mass nationwide exodus would ensue should selection restrictions be relaxed.
But what if there were no restrictions in place? Would the All Blacks be a better side if they allowed the selections of players who are based abroad?
There may be no certain way to answer that question unless the eligibility laws are tweaked, but here’s a XV of offshore-based players who could bolster the current crop of All Blacks if they were available for selection.
1. Ben Franks (Northampton Saints)
A two-time World Cup winner, the older Franks brother wrapped up his time in New Zealand following the All Blacks’ 2015 triumph in England. After having played for both the Crusaders and Hurricanes, the 36-year-old linked up with London Irish, where he remained until 2018. Franks is now signed with the Northampton Saints, who he may have played his last match for after announcing his retirement at the end of the now-cancelled season.
2. Hika Elliot (USO Nevers)
Capped four times by the All Blacks over a five-year period, Hika Elliot is now plying his trade in the Pro D2 with second-tier French club USO Nevers. The Chiefs centurion relocated to Nevers in 2018 after joining Top 14 side Oyonnax the season beforehand, and has been used as a No. 8 as well as a hooker during his time in Europe.
3. Owen Franks (Northampton Saints)
Twice a World Cup winner and an All Blacks centurion, few can lay claim to the feats that the younger Franks brother accomplished during his decade-long international career. In that time, he also won a hat-trick of Super Rugby titles with the Crusaders, but left New Zealand on a dour note last year after missing selection for the World Cup in Japan. Now playing in the Premiership with the Northampton Saints alongside older brother Ben.
4. Brodie Retallick (Kobelco Steelers)
Considered by many to be the best lock on the planet, Brodie Retallick signed a four-year contract extension with NZR and the Chiefs last year to keep him locked in for France 2023. That deal has allowed the World Cup winner and two-time Super Rugby champion to take a two-year sabbatical in Japan, where he has been playing for the reigning champion Kobelco Steelers side.
5. Sam Whitelock (Panasonic Wild Knights)
He may be one of the frontrunners to take the vacant All Blacks captaincy role, but Sam Whitelock took the Super Rugby season off this year so he could take up a sabbatical in Japan. The 117-test veteran would have hoped to have added a Top League crown to his two World Cup titles and three Super Rugby championships after joining former Wallabies coach Robbie Deans at the Panasonic Wild Knights, but their season cancellation means he’ll likely next be back in action in New Zealand.
6. Jerome Kaino (Toulouse)
One of the hardest-hitting All Blacks of the modern era, Jerome Kaino drew the curtain on his time in New Zealand two years ago. A veteran of 81 tests and 137 appearances for the Blues, the 36-year-old left Auckland for Toulouse, where he went on to add a Top 14 title last year to his two World Cup crowns and solitary provincial championship.
7. Matt Todd (Toshiba Brave Lupus)
Although he was the victim of being a Kiwi openside flanker in the same era as Richie McCaw, Sam Cane and Ardie Savea, Matt Todd still salvaged a highly-credible career during his decade in New Zealand. With 25 tests, three Super Rugby titles, 140 Crusaders appearances and seven provincial crowns to his name, the 32-year-old relocated to Japan permanently following last year’s World Cup after having already played for the Panasonic Wild Knights in 2018.
8. Kieran Read (Toyota Verblitz)
A dominant force in the All Blacks’ No. 8 jersey for 11 seasons, former captain Kieran Read played his 128th and final test at last year’s World Cup. He retired from international rugby as a two-time World Cup champion, and was key in the Crusaders’ back-to-back-to-back Super Rugby titles. Read has since joined Toyota Verblitz in the Top League, but admitted last month that his playing days in Japan may already be over due to the coronavirus outbreak.
9. Tawera Kerr-Barlow (La Rochelle)
A prominent figure within the All Blacks set-up between 2012 and 2017, Tawera Kerr-Barlow departed New Zealand to join Top 14 club La Rochelle three years ago. The 29-year-old took with him two Super Rugby titles from his time with the Chiefs, as well as a World Cup winners’ medal from 2015.
10. Dan Carter (Kobelco Steelers)
One of the all-time greats, Dan Carter’s career may have finally come to an end with the announcement of the cancelled Top League season. The 38-year-old playmaker had already bagged a Japanese domestic title with the Kobelco Steelers in 2018, adding to the raft of World Cup, Super Rugby, Top 14 and World Rugby player of the year honours he collated over an 18-year span.
11. Julian Savea (Toulon)
Nicknamed ‘The Bus’ for his explosive style of play, Julian Savea managed a scarcely-believable strike rate of 46 tries in 54 tests for the All Blacks. A sharp decline in form, though, saw the former Hurricanes wing dropped from the national side, leading to a two-year contract with Top 14 glamour club Toulon. Savea left for the south of France with a 2015 World Cup title and a 2016 Super Rugby championship to his credit.
12. Ma’a Nonu (San Diego Legion)
Calls for Ma’a Nonu to be re-called into the All Blacks squad for the World Cup last year fell on deaf ears, despite the globe-trotting veteran impressing for the underwhelming Blues in Super Rugby. His return to New Zealand came four years after he played the last of his 103 tests in the 2015 World Cup final. Nonu then went on to play 77 times for Toulon, and now finds himself in the United States with the San Diego Legion in Major League Rugby.
13. Malakai Fekitoa (Wasps)
A barnstorming midfielder who exploded onto the scene in his debut campaign with the Highlanders in 2014, Malakai Fekitoa prematurely left New Zealand in 2017. After having fallen out of favour with national selectors, the then-24-year-old signed a lucrative deal with Toulon to bring an end to his 24-test career. Unable to add to his World Cup and Super Rugby titles in France, Fekitoa joined Premiership club Wasps last year.
14. Waisake Naholo (London Irish)
Another member of the champion 2015 All Blacks and Highlanders squads, Waisake Naholo called time on his career in New Zealand last year. Injury woes and a substantial dip in form saw the 28-year-old miss selection for the World Cup in Japan, but Naholo left for England with 27 test caps, the most tries in Highlanders history, a provincial title with Taranaki and a 2013 Sevens World Cup crown.
15. Ben Smith (Pau)
As one of the most consistent performers for the All Blacks and Highlanders for a decade, Ben Smith left for French club Pau last year as arguably New Zealand’s best fullback since Christian Cullen. After co-captaining the Highlanders to their first-ever Super Rugby title, the 33-year-old won the World Cup three months later and went on to make 153 Super Rugby caps and 84 test appearances.
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