Now that Brad Thorn has set off to Japan, closing his All Black career, one of the key questions for next season is whether the new All Black regime will want a Thorn-style enforcer or another lineout ball winner at lock.
At 27, Jarrad Hoeata shapes as a starting XV successor to Thorn if the former role is required. He is an uncompromising, direct individual who can add vigour to a pack potentially still including Jerome Kaino, Owen and Ben Franks, Kieran Read, Victor Vito and Sam Whitelock at the next World Cup.
Hoeata got his chance with three caps in July and August - one against Fiji and two against South Africa. Now he can play a lead rather than a cameo role, although he has a key rival in Anthony Boric. At 2m to Hoeata's 1.95m, Boric has a height advantage and edged Hoeata for a World Cup squad spot when he recovered late from a foot injury. However, with Thorn gone, the focus may turn to how a likely Steve Hansen-led All Blacks' selection panel rates Boric's lineout skills and mobility over Hoeata's aggression and versatility.
It may be a question of balance. In the World Cup squad, Boric was a ready-made replacement for Ali Williams had injury intervened and Sam Whitelock provided solid grunt to back up Thorn. Now, there may be a gap for Hoeata.
Hansen has already signalled he respects his skills. Mid-year, he said Hoeata was capable of bringing a Thorn-like presence to the scrum and the lineout. If Hoeata can produce a strong 2012 with Jamie Joseph's Highlanders, he can make the All Blacks' nucleus. With Josh Bekhuis and Hoeata the first two locks at the Highlanders and Culum Retallick the likely number three, Hoeata should get plenty of second row game time.
Joseph says if the new selection panel holds similar loyalties to the last one, Hoeata would be in a prime position for 2015: "The All Blacks coaches showed consistency and were comfortable selecting players [on loyalty] who hadn't shown a lot of Super Rugby form," Joseph says. "There was a trust with some, based on experience, and that has proven a great decision now they've won the World Cup. Jarrad was rewarded for a big Super Rugby campaign where he went from underdog to All Black. He brings a hard edge in that tight lock role. His work rate and physicality are useful but in Super Rugby he showed he can hold more than his own in the scrum and lineout. Add that up and he's a serious contender for [more permanent] international honours. I know where he sits in my mind, but clearly he sits behind Boric in the All Blacks' rankings, judging by the World Cup squad."
Hoeata has played most of his career at blindside flanker and credited former All Blacks No 6 Joseph with transforming his playing career. Joseph originally picked him for New Zealand Maori after a few games off the bench for the Chiefs in the 2010 Super 14. Joseph happily admits he has mentored Hoeata outside the Highlanders bubble.
"Once a player is in the All Blacks, you assume the coaches know what they're doing so you don't want to clutter the player's mind. I told him he was selected for a certain skill set and not to lose sight of that. The All Blacks require you for your whole game but you are still picked because you bring a point of difference. Jarrad brings a physical presence; he's aggressive and determined. That's what got him in the All Blacks originally."
Former All Blacks lock Ian Jones can see a future spot for Hoeata on the basis of versatility but believes Boric is the logical Thorn replacement, given his lineout skills.
"At the top level as an out-and-out lock I have question marks over Jarrad's ability to win the ball. It comes down to how he and the Highlanders perform in Super Rugby," says Jones.
"If I was him I'd come into next season thinking: 'I'm not an established All Black: I've got to start again and dominate to prove my worth to the new selectors'. His objective needs to be to earn the position, otherwise some other bugger will.
"[Fellow Highlander] Josh Bekhuis looks capable of putting his hand up too, as does Luke Romano at the Crusaders who is coached by Todd Blackadder, a player also in the Thorn mould," says Jones.
Joseph says 25-year-old Bekhuis, at 2m and 114kg is a strong prospect: "He's an All Black in the making. He's mentally tough with a huge work ethic and honestly assesses himself. Once he recovers properly and rehabs after a recent operation it wouldn't surprise me if he's wearing black within a couple of seasons."