Nonu's Super Rugby return may herald new era

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Over the years New Zealand rugby has become accustomed to saying "goodbye" to top players. But "welcome back?" Not so much.

Since rugby union went professional, New Zealand accepted that leading players near the end of their careers would seek financial security by signing lucrative contracts in Britain, France and Japan.

World Cup years are usually the occasion of such departures as players make the global tournament a swansong before calling time on their international careers.

Already it seems likely All Blacks captain Kieran Read will lead a major exodus as senior players head overseas later this year for what some describe as family or lifestyle reasons.

Read, now 33, has indicated his interest in playing in France, where he is likely to have the company of many recent All Blacks teammates. Just this week, All Blacks prop Owen Franks — still young for a frontrower at 31 — signed for the England club Northampton where he will play beside his brother, former New Zealand international Ben Franks.

Recently a more disturbing trend emerged as younger players, previously kept in New Zealand by the desire to play for the All Blacks, have given up that ambition and headed overseas. The 17-test All Black Charles Piutau was among the first players, still firmly in the All Blacks selection frame, to put financial security first.

Piutau was only 23 when he headed to England to play for Wasps and subsequently Ulster in Ireland and Bristol. The 28-year-old All Blacks flyhalf Lima Sopoaga recently left to join Wasps, saying he has 30 members of an extended family to support.

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Center Malakai Fekitoa left at 25 to join Toulon (and subsequently Wasps) and in the last week one-test center Matt Proctor, aged 26, announced he will be joining Northampton next year.

While that is unsettling for New Zealand, which doesn't have the money to fend off the advances of northern hemisphere clubs, the first round of Super Rugby might have shown the first signs of a countervailing trend.

Former All Black Ma'a Nonu, who quit New Zealand after the 2015 World Cup to play in France for Toulon, has returned after four years and immediately reclaimed his place in the Auckland Blues midfield. At 36, Nonu says he hopes to play at this year's World Cup.

"I'm older. I hope I still have the wisdom upstairs and the physicality as well to play in Super Rugby because it's really intense," he said. "The Top 14 and the Champions Cup is a brutal, brutal competition in Europe. I learned a few things playing week-in, week-out."

Nonu played at center in the Blues 24-22 loss to the two-time defending champion Crusaders on Saturday and showed he still has some of his former strengths. Most importantly, his return and indications from other New Zealanders heading overseas suggest players no longer see their departures as permanent.

New Zealand has a hard-line policy of not considering overseas-based players for All Blacks selection and for that reason departing All Blacks in the past have often had to call time on their test careers.

But if those players return in a timely way, they may now be able to pick up their international careers where they were left off.

There is precedent: Jerome Kaino moved to Japan after the 2011 World Cup and returned to reclaim his test place for the 2015 tournament.

Nonu's prominent return to Super Rugby suggests when All Blacks leave New Zealand in future, it may no longer be with a one-way ticket.

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