WELLINGTON (Reuters) - All Blacks hooker Keven Mealamu’s re-signing with the New Zealand Rugby Union until 2014 with an option for an additional year represents a clear indication of the organisation’s strategy for their defence of the World Cup.
Mealamu’s new contract with the governing body ensured the bulk of the squad that are likely to go through until the 2015 World Cup have been, or are in the process of being, locked in.
Of the 28 players involved in the current Rugby Championship squad, only six have not confirmed agreements for 2014 and beyond.
“Keven has been a massive part of what the All Blacks have achieved in recent years,” All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said on Thursday.
“He has been a valued leader for a number of years now and has a large part to play in the off-field leadership of the team.”
Part of that off-field leadership is, along with fellow veteran Andrew Hore, to develop the next generation of hooker for the All Blacks following their virtual oligopoly of the jersey for more than a decade.
Dane Coles has been groomed as a potential option and with Mealamu and Hore in their mid-30s, another hooker will need to be exposed to the international level in the next 18 months in case either, or both, fail to make it to England in 2015.
Attention will also now turn to the retention of number eight Kieran Read, senior lock Sam Whitelock and winger Julian Savea, whose agreements expire at the end of this season.
All three are seen as key to the All Blacks World Cup chances with Read widely considered the best number eight in world rugby and the likely successor to captain Richie McCaw, having led the side this year against France.
Local media reported earlier this year that Read had been offered a three-year contract until the end of 2016 and a NZRU spokesperson said they were “pretty comfortable” with the progress of negotiations with the loose forward.
Whitelock’s negotiations were also well advanced, with both indicating their willingness to remain in New Zealand until after the 2015 World Cup.
A contract with Savea is expected to be completed once he finalises an agreement with a Super Rugby side.
Local media have reported Savea is weighing up a choice between his current side the Wellington Hurricanes and the seven-time champion Canterbury Crusaders.
Contracts for nine further members of the Rugby Championship squad expire at the end of 2014, with the NZRU expected to open negotiations with them in the near future.
Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by John O'Brien