Patrick McKendry lists five reasons to keep a close watch on the All Blacks' Northern Hemisphere tour.
1. Early surprises
Coach Steve Hansen has signalled a new rotation policy for the first two tests against Scotland and Italy because his side have a six-day turnaround between the games. Whatever the reason, it's a good chance to have a look at different combinations so his first two match-day squads will be eagerly anticipated. Captain Richie McCaw will get a rest in at least one of them, so Sam Cane will get the chance to earn his second test start. It will also be interesting to see how newcomers Dane Coles and Tawera Kerr-Barlow perform. Coles has the chance to cement a place as the third best hooker in the country, and Kerr-Barlow could overtake Piri Weepu as the second best halfback by the end of the tour.
2. Kieran Read's captaincy
No Richie means Kieran Read gets the top gig and it's one he will continue next year in the June internationals against France. Read has been in the form of his life this year - he is considered by some to be the best player in the world - but it will be interesting to see how he copes with the added responsibilities the All Blacks' captaincy brings.
Read is well liked by his teammates and has the potential to be an excellent captain for the national side after a good grounding at Canterbury and the Crusaders. However, he isn't likely to get quite the same respect with which international referees treat McCaw.
3. Ali and Piri
Both can consider themselves lucky to be on tour considering their lack of form this year and both have got a trip due to their experience and what they have done for Hansen. The spotlight will be on Williams, considered by the All Blacks' coach as the fourth best lock in the country, and Weepu, a halfback not wanted by Auckland in the ITM Cup final. Can they prolong their careers with impressive showings in the Northern Hemisphere? Despite a knee injury which has limited Williams' recent game time, he is likely to get little leeway from his critics, and the pressure will go on Weepu to up the speed of his game when he comes on to replace Aaron Smith. A start against Scotland or Italy is possible for him, however.
4. Undefeated record
The All Blacks' goal of winning every test this year foundered in the draw against Australia in Brisbane, but they have every chance of going through 2012 undefeated. The All Blacks' longest unbeaten streak came between 1987-90, when they put together a run of 23 games without a loss, although that included a 19-19 draw with Australia in 1988. If they remain undefeated against Scotland, Italy, Wales and England, the All Blacks would have gone 21 games without defeat. Their chasing of a new undefeated record will be tested against their nemesis France during the three home tests next year.
5. Manu Tuilagi
Samoan-born centre Manu Tuilagi was one of the few England players to emerge from the World Cup with their reputations enhanced, although unfortunately for him that was before he took an ill-conceived jump off a ferry into the Waitemata Harbour a few days later. Hopefully Tuilagi, who moved to England as a youngster and has been creating waves of a good kind at Leicester Tigers, remains injury-free during England's autumn internationals against Fiji, Australia and the Springboks and is available to play the All Blacks. The thick-set Tuilagi, 21, is a rare and valuable thing - an England back with the potential to excite.
- APNZBy Patrick McKendry Email Patrick