The man who'll coach Sam Whitelock when he skips next year's Super Rugby season to play in Japan has revealed just how close the All Black great was to leaving our shores for good.
Panasonic coach Robbie Deans believes Japanese rugby has a key role to play in helping New Zealand Rugby keep its talent long-term, if the governing body is willing to provide the same flexibility given to Whitelock.
Whitelock was just 19 when Deans first left to coach the wallabies, 11 years on, with Deans now in Japan, the relationship between two Canterbury stalwarts is stronger than ever.
“The irony in this instance is Sam approached us. We were closed to having resolved a deal with a South African lock, but whilst I was back in Christchurch over the break I caught up with Sam and was close to signing,” Deans told 1 NEWS.
Before their meeting in March, Whitelock was set on another overseas club for the long-term, ending his All Black career.
Deans encouraged him to push New Zealand Rugby for something more flexible, which led to yesterday's unique four-year contract extension filled with clauses in Whitelock's favour.
“This is obviously new ground with Sam. but as the expression goes, change is the only constant.”
New Zealand Rugby say flexibility will only be given to players who earn it. And that being able to play for the All Blacks while skipping Super Rugby like Whitelock will won't be the new norm
This is just the beginning though, according to Deans.
“Yeah it's inevitable the ability to adapt is key and one of New Zealand's greatest advantages ironically is possibly its size being so small and able to be agile and able to think outside of the square and find solutions that aren't encumbered by too much capital might be a good thing.”
Whitelock is managed by the same agent who is now negotiating an extension for Beauden Barrett and Brodie Retallick.
Such players are worth up to three times as much overseas. Deans' Panasonic Wild Knights would pay that while giving the All Blacks what they want as well.
“You're dealing with corporate sports. It's one step better than dealing with private ownership of the northern hemisphere especially if you've got a GM which we have who's a rugby man. He's been a great supporter of New Zealand Rugby over a long period of time.
“We've got a history of not only sending players to New Zealand but also the converse, players coming to us.”
“Matt Todd as recently as last year, the club released so he could play for the All Blacks - he was the first bloke to do that.”
But it's impossible to ship top talent offshore without weakening Super Rugby which develops our all blacks.
So, while the options may have changed, the same old problem remains.