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Smith has the quality to propel Munster back to the top

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

Talk of Ben Smith joining Munster has been doing the rounds on the rumour mill for some time, but it has always seemed an unlikely pairing.

Not since Doug Howlett walked through the Thomond Park doors have the two-time European champions been shopping in this kind of market, but reports in New Zealand have taken the potential transfer public and into the realm of possibility.

At 30, the 60-times capped New Zealander is looking at whether the World Cup in 2019 is a step too far and if he might be best off heading north to make some money before he retires.

If the All Blacks beat the Lions next June, he'll have achieved everything possible in a black jersey, and given the rate with which the conveyor belt is producing talent in his native land, he may feel the time is right.

The NZRU are determined to keep Smith and his team-mates Israel Dagg and Aaron Cruden and have bolstered their budget accordingly, but the lure of a European retirement fund and a new challenge could prove strong.

Although Munster are the only club being named in reports back in New Zealand, there is a long queue for Smith's signature and the NZRU have confirmed that he is attracting plenty of interest.

Arguably the best full-back in the world right now, Smith's all-round ability and counter-attacking capacities make him a desirable signing for any team.

The fact that Munster are in the conversation shows that under Rassie Erasmus the province are making moves in the right direction once again.

With Smith likely to command a salary of more than €750,000 per year in Europe, the chances are that a bidding war involving French or English clubs could take the All Black beyond Munster's budget.

Even to offer a salary in that bracket would be a significant change of policy for the province, who are on a recruitment drive as they look to consolidate early progress under their new Director of Rugby.

Erasmus is working hard to increase his options next season, with Irish-qualified trio Chris Farrell, JJ Hanrahan and James Hart on the way, while Munster are likely to be allowed to retain one of Jaco Taute or Francis Saili.

Rhys Marshall, a project player from New Zealand, has joined and uncapped South African prop Oliver Kebble has been linked with a move.

Saili's exit would free up some budget, while Ian Keatley is being linked with a move to Bayonne and Mark Chisholm is unlikely to remain, given his absence with a head injury.

However, the province may have sought outside help to bring Smith in. IRFU performance director David Nucifora has spoken of his willingness to get private investors involved.

Ulster are the only Irish side who have shopped at the higher end of the market in recent years, with marquee signings Charles Piutau and Marcel Coetzee commanding more than €700,000-a-year salaries.

Unless he fancies undermining New Zealand's 2019 squad, Nucifora may have reservations about recruiting another All Black full-back, and with Leinster courting Dagg there will be a line outside his door.

Whether Munster can get this one over the line or not, it is further proof that they are heading in the right direction.

Erasmus is recruiting in an attempt to bolster a squad that has impressed in recent weeks and with Thomond Park again sold out for the Boxing Day visit of Leinster, there is a sense that the connection between fans and the province has been restored in the wake of the tragic passing of Anthony Foley.

The signing of Smith would add to the momentum. His capture could catapult Munster back to the top table.

Belfast Telegraph

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