WELLINGTON All Blacks loose forward Steven Luatua will re-unite with his former Super Rugby coach Pat Lam at English Premiership strugglers Bristol for the 2017-18 season, the club said.
The hulking 25-year-old, who plays Super Rugby for the Auckland Blues, won his 15th cap for the All Blacks against Italy in November and his departure comes as a surprise for New Zealand Rugby two years out from the World Cup in Japan.
Bristol, currently bottom of the Premiership with two wins from 14 games, made no mention of the length of his contract but Luatua said in a club statement that he was looking forward to contributing to the club's "long term vision".
"I have a fantastic relationship with Pat (Lam) and I enjoyed working with him at the Blues," he said on Bristol's website (bristolrugby.co.uk).
"I've heard great things about the environment that is being built there and the plans in place, so I can't wait to get started in the summer."
Luatua has played most of his test rugby as a blindside flanker but is a capable number eight and can also play in the second row.
He made his All Blacks debut off the bench against France as a highly-rated 22-year-old in 2013 but struggled to nail down a regular spot, with veteran Jerome Kaino owning the blindside spot in Steve Hansen's back row over the past three years.
With Kaino set to turn 34 in April, however, Luatua may have been afforded more chances to impress Hansen before the 2019 World Cup.
Although aware of Luatua's move, Bristol's announcement blindsided the Blues, who declined to comment.
FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE
Hansen, meanwhile, said he had never been given a chance to talk with Luatua about his future and took a swipe at New Zealand-born Lam.
"In this case it's double disappointing because of the lack of communication," Hansen said in comments published by Fairfax Media.
"Steven's crew didn't want to talk because they are fearful we are going to change these guys' minds.
"And he's been tapped on the shoulder by Pat Lam which is disappointing, too. If you're an ex-New Zealander you should be a bit mindful about players' careers."
All Blacks captain and number eight Kieran Read was also disappointed but said he could not begrudge the player.
"It's not just what's best for them, but for their families," he told local media.
"But I really respect guys who have a great crack at it in New Zealand. If you stick it out it can pay dividends later in the career."
The All Blacks were recently boosted by the retention of outside backs Ben Smith and Israel Dagg, who have re-committed to New Zealand Rugby through to the World Cup, and Read said it was only a matter of time before he did the same.
"I want to keep my legacy here as long as I can," the 31-year-old said. "I'll be staying through to the next World Cup, and all going well, it will be signed off soon."
(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Nick Mulvenney/John O'Brien)