Harlequins to become go-to club for All Blacks stars seeking sabbatical after link-up deal struck with New Zealand
New Zealand have struck a groundbreaking deal with Harlequins which will see the Premiership club become the go-to destination for All Blacks seeking a European sabbatical.
As part of the 'exchange programme', Harlequins will also send developing players and coaches to New Zealand to gain valuable experience.
The move comes at a time when NZR - which has a strict rule of not selecting from abroad - is under increasing pressure to retain its players who are being lured away by the huge salaries on offer in Europe. With this new deal in place, Kiwi stars can reap the financial benefits of a stint overseas but under the control of the All Blacks.
"This is new territory for New Zealand Rugby and this unique relationship will open some useful connections in that part of the world," said NZR chief executive Steve Tew, who recently told The Telegraph that Kiwi teens as young as 15 are being targeted by clubs in France and the UK in what he describes as an unprecedented threat to his country’s playing stocks.
"With its strong ex-pat community, London is of key strategic importance to New Zealand Rugby. This alignment will create significant opportunities for both sides, with players, coaches and staff able to learn from different environments with different people, challenges and cultures."
Over the past year a huge number of All Blacks have put their international careers on hold, choosing to take the money on offer in the northern hemisphere, particularly the cash-rich Top 14 in France.
Malakai Fekitoa (Toulon) and Steven Luatua (Bristol) left last season, while Lima Sopoaga and Brad Shields (both Wasps), Jerome Kaino (Toulouse), Liam Messam (Toulon), George Moala (Clermont) and Charlie Ngatai (Lyon) are all heading north at the conclusion of the Super Rugby season.
The Rugby Football Union has no objection to the partnership, even though it may have benefits for England's international rivals.
Harlequins chief executive David Ellis said: "The All Blacks are the benchmark of excellence for all teams, so to be able to align with them both on and off the pitch will be of significant benefit to the club."
The benefits for Quins are huge. Not only will their youngsters gain experience of playing in New Zealand but director of rugby John Kingston could have access to superstars like Aaron Smith, Kieran Read and Brodie Retallick - players he would otherwise have been unable to afford.
Harlequins are the second Premiership team to be targeted by a rival union after Scotland revealed an interest in buying a stake in Newcastle Falcons.