Ben Smith's future 'in the balance' as NZ Rugby could lose two of big three

Steve Hansen made a throwaway comment late last year that New Zealand Rugby would do well to retain two of Ben Smith, Aaron Cruden and Israel Dagg.

Now there is a very real possibility two of those three high-profile stars will leave these shores by the end of this year.

It is enough to make the All Blacks coach sit up in his summer deckchair. Should that scenario eventuate, it would again create cause for concern around the vulnerability of elite New Zealand players.

Where previously NZ Rugby have been "quietly confident" of keeping the likes of All Blacks captain Kieran Read, Owen Franks and Beauden Barrett, when it comes to Smith indications are his decision remains very much "in the balance".

No deal is done but ambitious French club Pau, already with former All Blacks Conrad Smith and Colin Slade on their books, are leading the foreign charge for Smith's signature.

Smith is enjoying a break and, like his All Blacks counterparts, does not return to training with the Highlanders until late January. NZ Rugby will give him space until then, and not put any pressure on for an immediate decision.

A substantial offer has been tabled by NZR to Smith, reflecting his status as vice captain of the All Blacks, leader of the Highlanders and world's premier fullback. But the money Pau are offering is thought to be similar to the NZ$2.4 million per season Dan Carter is banking with French club Racing Metro. That's what Smith is mulling over a Central Otago pinot noir.

Every possibility of retaining Smith is being explored, including a sabbatical option that would allow him to leave for a short period after the British and Irish Lions tour, and then return to New Zealand.

When Smith signed his last four-year deal in 2013 his outlook was completely different, having only had one full season in the All Blacks. He has since won a World Cup, Super Rugby title and will take centre stage against the Lions. The 30-year-old is a top retention priority but may now feel he has already ticked most boxes.   

The situation appears even more tenuous with Cruden. Competing interests in England and France continue to drive up the Chiefs playmaker's market value overseas. 

While Cruden's lure diminished here last year after injury and form saw Barrett secure the All Blacks first five-eighth role, the 27-year-old's value in Europe hasn't dimmed.

Unlike Smith, Cruden hasn't been offered a contract in the million-dollar Read vicinity, and therefore faces a much larger disparity in what he can earn at home and abroad.

Dagg is believed to be waiting on Smith to make a decision. He found a home on the right wing for the All Blacks last year but fullback remains his preferred position.

With a baby on the way, of the three Dagg is considered the most likely candidate to stay.


Photo: All Blacks fullback/wing Israel Dagg