TALK that Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith may lose the All Blacks No9 jersey should be relegated to the realms of fantasy.
Yes, the little livewire has been struggling to show his best form through the early stages of the Super 15 campaign but there is good reason for that.
The plain facts are the Highlanders forwards simply haven't been giving him either the quality of possession or the quality of protection which any halfback requires to shine at the top levels of the game.
It's damn difficult to clear ball quickly or make sniping runs when your forwards are on the back foot and the opposing loosies are virtually in your back pocket.
No rugby pundit worth his salt should need reminding of the hugely positive impact made by Smith through the ABs' busy international campaign last season. Sure, there was the odd game where not everything went according to plan but in any analysis of their season he would have to be rated as one of the ABs' big success stories.
Maybe he is not yet ready to be ranked alongside Aussie Will Genia but, if not, the gap between them has certainly closed appreciably over the last 12 months
There are, however, two other ABs in the Highlanders who have good reason to worry about their prospects of retaining their spots in 2013. It would be wrong to suggest that prop Tony Woodcock and hooker Andrew Hore are now past their use-by date but these wonderful servants of the game do seem to be on a downward spiral.
To cut Woodcock's international career off when he is just four games short of reaching 100 appearances for the ABs would, of course, be unfortunate but if you believe, like me, that sentiment should not come into selection for our national side then it's hard to make a case for his retention at the present time. His reputation as perhaps the world's best scrummager has certainly been dented and he has seldom been prominent in general play.
Similar things could be said of Hore. Rated for years as one of the best ball carriers in the country, he doesn't seem to be having quite the same impact in this year's Super 15 and you have to wonder whether the combination of age and injury has finally taken its toll.
Of the two, Woodcock is probably the better bet to wear the silver fern again this season because there isn't exactly a plethora of experienced props pushing to claim his place. Whereas hookers such as the Hurricanes' Dane Coles and Hika Elliott from the Chiefs are challenging Hore hard and evergreen Blues rake Kevin Mealamu who, at 34 is, due back shortly from an extended injury break. There are many who will argue if Hore is ready for the scrap heap then Mealamu should be too, and for much the same reasons.