Luke McAlister, the youngest of the All Blacks who have signed lucrative deals with northern hemisphere clubs, has defended his part in the post-World Cup exodus but admitted he may never return to New Zealand rugby.
"I've got to do what's best for me not what's best for other people," said McAlister, the 24-year-old former world young player of the year who has agreed a two-year deal with Sale Sharks in the Guinness Premiership. "I've got one shot at rugby and I want to experience the most that I can. I looked at it as going away for a couple of years and maybe returning. But who knows, I can't predict the future."
McAlister, a fly-half or centre, is second only to Dan Carter as the brightest All Black talent to emerge in recent years, gaining his Test debut at 21 against the Lions in 2005 and winning 18 caps to date. He is set for a part in Saturday's World Cup opener against Italy, but after the tournament he and six other members of the 30-man squad are off to northern pastures new.
Apart from the strength of the pound against the New Zealand dollar, the crucial development is that All Blacks can flee for a couple of years' high earning in Europe but return in time for the 2011 World Cup – which their country happens to be hosting. It will not quite be a wasteland in their absence but there are dire implications for sponsors, broadcasters and the New Zealand Rugby Union, whose rules do not allow overseas-based players to represent the All Blacks.
All Black wing Doug Howlett announced his post-World Cup move to Munster last week, joining McAlister, Aaron Mauger (Leicester), Byron Kelleher (Toulouse), Anton Oliver (Toulon), Carl Hayman (Newcastle) and Chris Jack (Saracens) in the brawn drain. Four more Test All Blacks – Rico Gear, Marty Holah, Clarke Dermody and Greg Rawlinson – plus Maori caps Rua Tipoki and Paul Tito are also moving to Europe.
At salaries of upwards of £200,000 per man some of these Kiwis are doubling or trebling their money. Even a top All Black earns only £130,000-£150,000 and they are on a bonus of approximately £33,000 each to win the World Cup.
"New Zealand is a small place and we can't operate in a global market," said Oliver. "The All Black jersey has been holding that gap in but the strength of that fabric can only be stretched so far. It's concerning to me where there are younger players going who haven't played a lot of Tests."
Mauger, 26, argued it was "pretty draining" being an All Black and a professional sportsman in New Zealand, though he could play 30 matches a season upon joining Leicester until 2010. "I would liken one Test match to three games at any other level," the centre said.
In a sense McAlister is coming home as he lived in Oldham from the age of four to 13, while his father Charlie played rugby league. "It was a hard decision to leave, that's for sure," said McAlister, whose great-grandfather Arthur Collins played three All Black Tests in the 1930s. "I spent a solid chunk of my life in the Manchester area. The first thing that springs to mind when I remember it? The cold."
In his youth he was "pretty full on" in football, as a member of the Manchester United school of excellence.
Right now he is watching his food intake closely for the World Cup, rewarding himself with a dollop of ice cream only for a good match or training session. A deserter getting his just desserts, you might say.
The All Blacks' beach-front hotel is swanky enough for most tastes, and Carter for one is not ready yet to leave the land of the long white cloud. "I'd like to see a lot of the guys hang around," he said, "because they've got a lot of good footie left in them." And how many offers had he knocked back of late? "I haven't had any. I've got a management group who deal with that."