All Blacks selectors' attention will be on recovering Cruden, but Barrett and Slade are snapping at his heels.

First-fives are responsible for creating opportunities for others, and the absence of the resting Dan Carter and injured Aaron Cruden is enabling All Black hopefuls Beauden Barrett and Colin Slade to step into the spotlight.

With Carter unavailable for next month's three-test series against England, it will be up to Cruden, Barrett or Slade to fill the No 10 jersey.

Hansen announced his latest 36-strong training group yesterday. The wider training group includes five players who are uncapped at international level. Gregor Paul and Wynne Gray give their expert opinion on who will make the final squad for the England test series in June

Cruden is next in the pecking order behind Carter, but his broken thumb in round eight has ruled him out of the Chiefs' past five games. He is likely to be available for their match against the Hurricanes in Wellington after this weekend's bye.

Even if Cruden does play in that match at the Cake Tin on May 24, and the next fixture against the Waratahs in New Plymouth, his build-up for the first test against England at Eden Park on June 7 will be limited.


But the All Black selectors will be confident of his ability to step up to the test battle. They will probably think the enforced rest has been beneficial to a player who has had to manage his training workload carefully over the past few years.

In any case, the form of Barrett and Slade, the other two No 10s named in the All Blacks' training squad this week, will comfort the selectors. They have been outstanding for their teams, both of which are still well in the play-off mix.

Barrett remains ranked behind Cruden, but it is Slade's performances which have been the most surprising.

Injury-free, finally, after a horror run of groin, jaw and ankle injuries, Slade has been a big reason the Crusaders have won their last five matches in such impressive fashion. His effort against the Reds in Brisbane on Sunday was one of his best in a Crusaders jersey and not only because he kicked 11 from 11.

Finally confident in his body's ability to handle the collisions, he is throwing himself into contact.

Of the three, the numbers from the Herald's rugby stats centre suggest Slade is the best defender.

He also gives the All Blacks utility value. Slade could survive the cull when the 31-player squad is whittled from 36 because of his ability to play fullback and wing.

Selector Grant Fox, a former All Black first-five, said it was Slade's mental growth that was most marked.

"He's physical in his game and he's maturing," he said. "We've always known he's had a lot of talent. Where I think we are starting to see a lot of growth is in the mental side of his game."

Barrett's running game has resulted in five tries for the Hurricanes, who have taken the competition by storm with their ability to attack from anywhere. He also has All Black form on his side. His explosiveness from the reserves bench was a big reason the national team won some difficult tests last year - against Ireland in Dublin, for example.

"He gets better and better," Fox said. "He had a slow start to the season, as the Hurricanes did. But the little kinks in his game ... he has worked hard to fix those.

"Beauden is kicking his goals, he's directing them around the park, his punting game is getting stronger again and he's starting to take the ball flatter, particularly on phase play because he's an explosive athlete. He's a real threat when he carries."