Hansen: All Blacks are facing ‘most difficult year’

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen says that 2016 would be “one of the most difficult years” for New Zealand rugby after Colin Slade joined the exodus of players leaving the country.

There has long been a tradition of New Zealand players leaving their country of birth to play in Europe at the end of their careers but in recent years the players leaving have gotten younger and younger.

Twenty-seven-year-old Crusaders flyhalf Slade became the 10th All Black to announce that he will leave New Zealand after the Rugby World Cup.

Slade was rumoured to be in talks with a French club last week but on Monday it was confirmed that he will leave New Zealand on a deal reportedly worth 660,000 euros ($698,000) a year to join French club Pau.

Still to confirm their post-World Cup futures are Julian Savea, Sam Cane and Ryan Crotty and, coupled with expected retirements and the impact of the Olympics, coach Steve Hansen is bracing for a difficult 12 months following the September-October tournament in England.

Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder, who stands to lose two fly-halves to French clubs in Dan Carter and Slade, put a positive spin on the losses.

“It’s a good opportunity for some young guys to put their hands up and for us to start again almost,” he said.

But with the New Zealand sevens squad also able to call on All Blacks for the Olympics next year, Hansen admitted 2016 would be “one of the most difficult years” for All Blacks rugby.

“Not only are we losing people as it’s time for them to go overseas or retire, and we’ve lost one or two other people we didn’t want to lose, but we’re also going to lose some guys to the Olympics,” he told the stuff.co.nz website.

“We could lose up to 15 players out of our current 31-man squad, which is massive.”

The 17-Test Slade may not have been the All Blacks’ first choice fly-half but he was crucial to Hansen’s plans because of his ability to cover wing and fullback, his sound defence and coolness as a goalkicker.

New Zealand’s player exodus also includes Carter (Racing Metro), Ma’a Nonu (Toulon) and Conrad Smith (Pau), who are near the end of their international careers.

But Charles Piutau (Ulster), Francis Saiili (Munster), Tom Taylor (Bayonne) and Frank Halai (Wasps) are just starting theirs.

Tight forwards Jeremy Thrush (Gloucester) and Ben Franks (London Irish) are also considered valuable squad members while not necessarily first-choice selections.

Talismanic skipper Richie McCaw, 34, deflects questions about his future, but the indications are he will retire at the end of the year along with fellow Test centurions Keven Mealamu, aged 36, and Tony Woodcock, 34.

With the bank accounts of the European clubs bulging, New Zealand Rugby Players Association chief Rob Nichol expects more All Blacks to depart despite the effort going into keeping them in the country.

“They’ve still got another couple that they’re working through but we’ll just let that process pan out,” he told Radio Sport.

“We’re going through that two-three month frame where guys are making really big decisions about their future.

“You’ve got guys that are committing (to New Zealand) and you’ve got guys that are heading overseas. We certainly feel that we’re taking a bit of a hit at the moment but it’s a long-running battle.”

At Super 15 level, in the space of 12 months the Crusaders will have lost three All Blacks – fly-halves in Carter, Taylor and Slade – while former New Zealand Under 20s star Tyler Bleyendaal left for Munster last year.

“It’s a concern every time you lose a player because it’s taking away another brick from the wall, and if you take too many away, eventually the wall will fall over,” Hansen said.

“I understand in some circumstances there’s a really good reason for some people to do it, but in others I just wish they’d hang on and chase their dream a bit more.”

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