All Blacks skipper Kieran Read admits Steven Luatua’s impending departure to British rugby comes as something of a surprise.
The versatile 25-year-old has signed a one-year deal with relegation-threatened Bristol from the end of this year’s Super Rugby campaign.
A loose forward or lock for Auckland and the Blues, Luatua has played 15 Tests since 2013 but has struggled to pin down regular selection.
He was a highly-promising prospect when playing 11 Tests in his debut season but injury and fitness issues have since reduced his appearances.
His lone Test in 2016 was in Read’s No.8 jumper against Italy in Rome, where he scored a try in a 68-10 thumping.
“I kind of saw him as a guy who made some great strides last year, someone who really had an impact,” Read told reporters.
“It’s a bit sad to lose a guy like that but people make decisions and you can’t begrudge it, he’ll have his reasons.”
Luatua will join former Blues boss Pat Lam in Bristol, with the Kiwi coach taking over in 2017-18 from Mark Tainton.
The UK Premiership club reportedly beat off a number of other European clubs to secure the Aucklander’s signature.
“I have a fantastic relationship with Pat and I enjoyed working with him at the Blues,” Luatua said in a Bristol Post report.
“Bristol Rugby is one of the most ambitious clubs in the UK.
“I’ve heard great things about the environment that is being built there.”
Luatua is the third relatively young All Blacks player in the last six months to announce his departure for lucrative offshore deals.
Grizzly tighthead Charlie Faumuina will head to Toulouse at the end of this year’s Super Rugby, while five-eighth Aaron Cruden will move to Montpellier.
However, New Zealand Rugby has retained the services of outside backs Ben Smith and Israel Dagg on long-term deals.
Read said the re-signing of Dagg was a coup for the union and the Crusaders, where both play at franchise level.
“He’s been great for us over the last couple of years and I’m looking forward to seeing him back out on the field,” Read said.