New Zealand cry foul over 'poaching' of teenage rugby talent
New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew has warned that players as young as 15 are being targeted in what he describes as an unprecedented threat to his country's playing stocks.
In the past year, the five New Zealand franchises have lost 17 players, including seven All Blacks, to European clubs.
Many more will depart, with Wasps announcing the signings of Lima Sopoaga and Brad Shields for next season. Fellow All Blacks Liam Messam, Jerome Kaino and Charlie Ngatai are expected to follow.
Tew is accustomed to his high-profile stars being in demand, but it is targeting of school-age players that is setting alarm bells ringing.
A development that started in South Africa with foreign scouts attending Craven Week - the country's main schools tournament - seems to have spread to New Zealand.
Tew said: "We have been concerned about our player stocks for some time, particularly the French market, but there's a bit going on in England and Japan as well. There's been more heat than there has ever been.
"Clubs are increasingly talking to agents about players at a much younger age. Teenagers, sometimes 15-year-olds, are being approached about signing by clubs in both union and league. That's scary."
Some of those who leave New Zealand shores will end up playing against the All Blacks. In the last round of Six Nations matches, every country had at least one New Zealand-born player in their squad.
World Rugby has extended the residency qualification period for international players from three to five years, effective from 2020, and Tew believes this may have caused clubs to target even younger players.
As an alternative, Tew is exploring the possibility of opening relationships with certain foreign clubs where the NZRU would send players for sabbaticals.
That would allow the player to maximise their earnings while the NZRU can monitor their development and ensure their return to the fold. (© Daily Telegraph, London)