Agnew: His loss no mortal blow

Aaron Cruden. Photo / Wikimedia Commons.

Expect more All Blacks to join Aaron Cruden in chasing the big money abroad rather than battle for a starting spot in the New Zealand rugby test team.

Just as Nick Evans did so many years ago when heading off to England’s Harlequins rather than wait in the shadow of Dan Carter, Cruden, 28, has decided to shake off the spectre of Beauden Barrett by joining Montpellier in France at the end of the coming NZ winter.

Having spent a long apprenticeship in the shadow of Carter, Cruden was expected to take over his mantle after the Cantabrian’s decision to retire from international rugby upon winning the 2015 World Cup at Twickenham.

However an injury to the astute Chiefs pivot in an early test against the touring Welsh last year gave Beauden Barrett a chance to showcase his absolute brilliance.

So well did Barrett take it, both for the All Blacks and the Super Rugby champion Hurricanes, he also followed in Carter’s wake in being named International Rugby Player of the Year.

With gifted Lima Sopoaga and versatile young gun Damian McKenzie as back-ups to Barrett, Cruden’s decision to chase the big bucks abroad is not the mortal wound it might have been if Barrett were to be injured.

However with 47 tests behind him, Cruden remains a very talented player who prospered for Manawatu and the Chiefs as a protégé of coach Dave Rennie, who is headed for Glasgow at the end of the year.

With Steve Hansen contracted through to the end of 2018 when the British and Irish Lions tour NZ, Rennie could still challenge Ian Foster for the All Blacks top coaching role when Hansen decides to call it quits.

Certainly there will be no lack of gifted candidates, though emulating Hansen’s amazing record will probably be beyond them, especially with the Home Nations growing in strength.

Meanwhile with Barrett, the obvious first choice first-five, it will be interesting to see which of Sopoaga and McKenzie the national selectors choose as his deputy.

While the fast and elusive McKenzie has exciting attacking flair, both as a pivot and fullback, Sopoaga has the calmer disposition and makes better choices. Both are better goal-kickers than Barrett.

With tighthead prop Charlie Faumuina also headed for France after the coming season with the Blues, expect further offers to be made by French, British, Irish and Japanese clubs.

However retaining Ben Smith and Israel Dagg after completing their current contracts at the end of the coming season should be the NZRU’s priority.

With both in peak form last year, age certainly has not diminished their brilliance.

But the huge money being offered abroad is a big temptation when weighed against the huge workload and extensive travel placed on All Blacks who have to contend with an extended Super Rugby championship as well as internationals.

As Barrett’s manager Bruce Sharrock points out, his other clients, Waisake Naholo, Malakai Fekitoa and Liam Squire, are also considering their future.

In the case of Naholo and Fekitoa, that is especially understandable, bearing in mind the likely return from injury of Nehe Milner-Skudder, Sonny-Bill Williams and Charlie Ngata.

Just as we have seen in other more lucrative sports like football, gridiron and basketball, money talks louder than loyalty for many who don’t know the value of a silver fern.

Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author