Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock’s decision to commit to four-year contracts were indications of the New Zealand Rugby Union’s early planning for the arrival of the 2017 Lions, according to the body’s head of player services Chris Lendrum.
The Canterbury Crusaders duo, whose agreements were announced last weekend, became the second and third players contracted through until the tour after Otago Highlanders utility Ben Smith signed a four-year contract earlier this year.
The trio join 15 other players considered to be likely to be in coach Steve Hansen’s plans for the All Blacks side he hopes will defend the World Cup in England in 2015, while at least 10 others in that bracket are signed through until 2014.
“We have cyclical factors and pinnacle events within that cycle and clearly rugby World Cups are obvious (targets),” Lendrum told Reuters at NZRU headquarters in Wellington.
“We are focused on 2015 but also thinking about who are the players who will be core players who can then take us through to the Lions in 2017.
“We are starting to turn that page now but four to five years in rugby is a lot of seasons.
“The guys in high impact positions, there is a lot of rugby to go through but for the guys like Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock we are confident they can get there.”
The NZRU operates a policy of not picking overseas-based players for the national team, which is seen as a major tool in their battle to retain talent in the country.
Of the players signed through until 2014, focus would now likely turn to securing young forwards Owen Franks, Charlie Faumuina and Luke Romano as well as backs Aaron Smith, Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett and Israel Dagg until 2015 and beyond.
Players like Conrad Smith (32) and Cory Jane (30) however fall into a second category – likely to be in Hansen’s plans for England but with 2017 probably a step too far.
A similar approach was applied prior to the 2011 World Cup, Lendrum said, where short-term the All Blacks aimed to be ‘the best defenders of the Webb Ellis trophy’ in 2012 while longer term, younger players were locked up with an eye on 2015.
“If there was a player we weren’t quite certain about and were important for the first goal for 2012 and then they thought, or we thought, they weren’t going to get through to 2015 then those players were important to the here and now of winning All Blacks games,” Lendrum said.
That decision as to when it might be time for a player to leave New Zealand rugby, he added, was normally driven by the All Blacks management with input from the Super Rugby franchise coaches and the organisation’s talent identification programmes.
“The hard conversations are often delivered by the coaches, (who) are critical. They provide constant feedback on the way the team is performing,” Lendrum said.
“At the end of the day it’s what’s best for (the player) and sometimes for their legacy it is best to let them go so they’re not just flailing around at the end of their career. That’s a horrible, lasting memory to have of a player.
“A lot of times you just know. It might be physical reasons, or just that you look at a player who can see that there are a bunch of young kids coming through.”
Lendrum’s biggest concern at the top end of the market was always money, with French and Japanese clubs providing the biggest challenges to keeping players in New Zealand.
Rival codes like rugby league, and to a lesser extent Australian Rules, were targeting younger development players he said, while rival Super Rugby franchises from Australia were also looking at provincial or age-grade players.
“The focus is on not keeping all players. You can’t,” he added. “You have to keep as many of the right players as you can.
“We can’t compete on money so we want them to look at us and think we provide the best environment, best coaches, best pathway to the All Blacks and say ‘I want to stay here because it can make me the best player I can be’.”
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)