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Did our Bledisloe window just open? AB stars Smith and Barrett join mass exodus to Japan - with more to follow

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7th February, 2023
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The Wallabies’ window for Bledisloe Cup success could just be opening, with All Blacks greats Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett to join Richie Mo’unga and Ardie Savea in Japan in 2024.

What’s more, as revealed last month by The Roar, Brodie Retallick is likely to put pen to paper in the coming days and join Savea at Kobe next year.

The mass departures leave the All Blacks slightly vulnerable following this year’s World Cup in France.

All Blacks halves pairing Smith and Barrett will join World Cup-winning All Blacks coach Steve Hansen at Toyota Verblitz. It’s the same Japanese club Michael Hooper spent a season at in 2021, while Kieran Read also played there.

Their signatures mean Toyota will have the hottest halves combination in the tournament in yet another boost to the Japanese League One competition.

Mounga-Barrett

All Blacks playmakers Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett will both play in Japan in 2024. Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

While Smith, 34, was always expected to head to Japan, Barrett could yet feature for the All Blacks going forward.

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Barrett had been linked to a high-profile move to Racing 92 – the same glamour club in the French Top 14 Dan Carter played at following the 2015 World Cup – but after the Parisian club offered Scottish maverick Finn Russell a reduced deal, the All Blacks star cooled on the move to Europe.

It’s understood Richie Mo’unga’s three-year deal in Japan also made New Zealand Rugby think about their own long-term contract planning, with the governing body anxious of their depleting depth stocks.

The loss of Mo’unga was one thing, but the loss of Barrett – the two-time World Rugby player of the year – would have been a monumental blow to their attacking stocks.

The rate of All Blacks stars heading north is growing, with Aaron Smith (L) and Beauden Barrett (2nd R) joining Ardie Savea (C) and Richie Mounga (R) in Japan in 2024. Photo Hannah Peters/Getty Images

While the All Blacks still have livewire Damian McKenzie and an improving Stephen Perofeta, neither are out-and-out fly-half options.

McKenzie, too, has never quite been trusted to run the cutter despite his mercurial edge.

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Barrett confirmed he was still in conversations with New Zealand Rugby about playing a role with the All Blacks beyond 2024, but cashed-up Japanese clubs have changed their tune about players coming in for just one year and are now viewing deals through a longer, strategic lens.

“I’m looking forward to taking up this opportunity with Toyota alongside a good friend and long-term team-mate in Aaron,” Barrett said in a New Zealand Rugby statement.

“My agent Warren Alcock is in communication and negotiation with New Zealand Rugby, the Blues and Toyota about my future beyond the Japan One 2024 season.

“I want to give myself time to ensure I make the right decision and once I gain clarity on that I will be able to give an update on what my future looks like beyond 2024.”  

Blues CEO Andrew Hore added: “We have loved having Beauden at the Blues since his move north in 2020. He has signalled the door is still open for a return to rugby here in New Zealand and we would absolutely welcome him, Hannah and the kids back to the Blues whānau in the future.”

: Aaron Smith of the All Blacks reacts during The Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the Australia Wallabies at Eden Park on September 24, 2022 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

2023 will be the last year as an All Blacks player for Aaron Smith. Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

Smith, who was one part of a brilliant halves combination in 2015 when he and Lima Sopoaga led the Highlanders to a brilliant Super Rugby victory over the Hurricanes in Wellington, thanked the franchise for fostering his development.

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“From the time I signed my first professional contract in 2008 I’ve been living my dream,” he said.

“I have been blessed to represent my home with the Manawatū Turbos, who helped me chase my dream of being a Super Rugby player.

“I have to say a big thanks to the Highlanders for believing in me. I have done it all with that team and they have always been there for me. Thank you to every Highlanders player, staff member and fan. You have given me everything and more in the 13 years we have had together.”

Meanwhile, the Wallabies’ Bledisloe Cup fixtures have been confirmed for 2023.

After taking on the All Blacks at the MCG on July 29, Eddie Jones’ men return to Dunedin for the second and final Bledisloe Test on August 5. It will be the first Bledisloe Cup afternoon kick-off in Dunedin since 2013, with the fixture to kick off at 12:35pm AEST.  

Eddie Jones recalled the Wallabies’ last win across the ditch at Matraville Sports High School on January 31, 2023 in Sydney. Photo: Matt King/Getty Images

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Jones was the last Wallabies coach to hold the Bledisloe Cup and his side famously recorded their most recent victory over the All Blacks in Dunedin back in 2001.

Upon his return to Australia last week, Jones said winning the Bledisloe Cup was a priority but it wasn’t the “be-all and end-all” in 2023, with all eyes on the World Cup.

“I think it’s pretty important… I remember 2001 in Dunedin when we won it, Googy (Justin Harrison) was part of that and the party we had afterwards was fantastic,” Jones responded to The Roar.

“And Steve Larkham, who is one of our Super Rugby coaches now, was brilliant on that day, the way he manipulated the space against the Kiwis.

“And that’s a big target for us because we as Australians if we can take New Zealand then we’re in a good position to take the World Cup, so we’ll certainly be prioritising that.

“But again, it won’t be the be-all and end-all because the World Cup is a major tournament, but certainly, we’ve got a home game against them in Melbourne, where we hope to have a sellout crowd which will be a great occasion.

“And we know that the last time the Australians played there, the referee made a difficult decision at the end of the game. And he’s still recovering from it.

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“And Australia went close and it’s a ground, Melbourne Cricket Ground, where Australia traditionally play well. So if we can get the lead in the series and then go to Dunedin, what a fabulous place to win back the Bledisloe Cup.

“So that’s the picture in my head mate.”

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