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All Blacks Beauden Barrett, left, and Aaron Smith will combine in Japan next year.
All Blacks Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett will continue their careers together at Japanese club Toyota next year.
The experienced duo have both signed with the club and will depart for Japan after this year’s World Cup campaign in France.
Confirmed by New Zealand Rugby on Tuesday night, Smith has signed a long-term deal, but Barrett hasn’t closed the door on a potential return in 2025.
“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 statement.
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“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.”
Regardless, the fact both are leaving New Zealand after the World Cup shouldn’t come as a surprise and has been foreshadowed.
Confirmation lock Brodie Retallick will also finish up his career in Japan is expected in the coming weeks, with a three-year deal with Kobe set to be announced. Crusaders pivot Richie Mo’unga has signed a three-year deal with Toshiba, while Hurricanes skipper Ardie Savea will also play in Japan in 2024.
“From the time I signed my first contract in 2008 until now, I have been living my dream,” Smith said in a statement.
“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.”
With 176 Super Rugby caps to his name, Smith is the most capped Highlander in franchise history, and was an integral part of their lone crown in 2015.
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Having regressed as a team since fellow franchise great Ben Smith’s departure after the 2019 World Cup, Smith’s move will be felt, although there’s optimism Folau Fakatava will fulfil his potential in the coming years and soften the blow.
“You look at Aaron and you think, this guy could go on forever. I know we and every Highlanders fan would want him to,” Highlanders boss Roger Clark said.
“Unfortunately, that is not a reality in professional rugby and the time has come to say thank you, good luck, and goodbye. That will not be easy for us, our fans or Aaron. He is such a massive part of the Highlanders story, our most-capped player and surely one of our best ever.
The former Fielding High School student debuted for Manawatū in 2008 and has amassed 47 appearances for the province, becoming their most-capped international.
“Aaron’s commitment and dedication to Manawatū has been unquestionable,” Manawatū Rugby boss Andrea Jackson said.
“That has been made even more clear in recent seasons when he has donned the famous green and white jersey in between his All Blacks duties, in 2020 and 2021.
“We wish Aaron and his whanau all the best for their next adventure, and we hope to see him back one day to bring up his 50th match for Manawatū.”