End of year tour first chance to see emerging talent play against Italy and Scotland.
The All Black squad to tour Europe will have a familiar look but the teams selected will, for the first time this season, feature significant changes.
The fixture list lends itself to heavy rotation in the first games against Scotland and Italy, before something close to the strongest XV is selected for the games against Wales and England. That's partly because of the relative weakness of the early opposition and that there is only a six-day turnaround between the two fixtures.
Added into that is the coaching staff's desire to see a number of players rarely sighted this year given a decent run. There are also several 30-somethings across the team - Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu, Andrew Hore, Richie McCaw, Daniel Carter, Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith.
Head coach Steve Hansen knows that as much as he wants all of them to play through to 2015, some will hit the wall before then. The end of year tour is the first chance he's had in 2012 to take a proper look at the emerging talent he believes will step in to replace some of the senior men if and when they move on.
Scotland and Italy are two of the weakest Tier One sides - providing a relatively safe environment to select the likes of Sam Cane and Beauden Barrett while introducing Dane Coles and Tawera Kerr-Barlow (the most likely choices as third hooker and halfback) to test rugby off the bench.
Coles, should he get the nod ahead of Hika Elliot and the other contenders, is likely to be on the bench for the first two tests and possibly all four. Either Hore or Mealamu will start and the one not required is expected to be out of the 23 altogether.
"We have got some test matches coming up in the UK that will give us the opportunity to give most people a game, particularly the first two," says Hansen. "There is a six-day turnaround so we will have to look to make some changes from Scotland to Italy so the team benefits from that. Then we will go back to picking the best team for the occasion."
That last statement means Wales and England have been identified as genuine threats and will require something close to the best All Black XV. There is also a need to prepare for life, albeit briefly, without McCaw who will miss the French series next year on sabbatical.
It's probable McCaw will skip one of the first two tests with Kieran Read asked to captain the side. The coaches, however, won't just be looking to groom Read, they will be stressing to senior players that they too must guide and lead.
While Hansen will have wider, long-term development goals in mind for part of the tour, he is breaking with modern convention in one sense - he's not expected, as was a feature of the Graham Henry era, to load the squad with new faces when it is unveiled tomorrow. The end of year tour has, in the immediate past at least, been the time for the All Blacks to be bolder, pick younger, largely untried players and try to fast-track their indoctrination while in camp for an extended period.
Hansen has effectively already done that with his initial squad this season. In Charlie Faumuina, Brodie Retallick, Luke Romano, Cane, Aaron Smith, Barrett and Julian Savea, Hansen already has his bolters. He has identified the next generation of All Blacks with his wider training squads a further clue as to who is in his thinking: men such as Ben Tameifuna, Brad Shields, Luke Whitelock, Coles and Kerr-Barlow will be watched closely over the next 18 months. The latter two are almost certain to be picked tomorrow and possibly even one other from that group.
The All Blacks have had a squad of 29 for the last few tests and have said they will take three halfbacks and three hookers to Europe. Adding those two in takes the tally to 31 with the 32nd place to go to a lock as they currently only have three certainties in the mix.
Ali Williams, who would have been the fourth lock with a fuller season under his belt, played for the Auckland ITM Cup side last night after a long struggle with injury and has barely played since June. Jarrad Hoeata and Craig Clarke are the probable short-list options at lock if Williams isn't able to travel.By Gregor Paul Email Gregor