Chris Rattue judges the best and worst performances from All Blacks across the Super Rugby Aotearoa and Transtasman campaigns.
Ups: Codie Taylor has been superb, particularly early in the season. Ash Dixon's fantastic lineout throwing is a huge weapon for the Highlanders but he's probably not a test option at 32.
Rising: I like the look of big Chief Samisoni Taukei'aho over Hurricane whirlwind Asafo Aumua. He's not as flamboyant, but has a lot more grunt and was part of an awesome Chiefs scrum.
Downs: Dane Coles - only a shadow of his exhilarating best, and he'll be approaching 37 by the next World Cup. As harsh as it seems, this is the perfect year to move on, take a risk, blood the up and comers, even though the combative Coles' influence over the All Blacks remains vital. The selectors won't of course, fearing test losses which would put Ian Foster's shaky reign under even more pressure. And Coles has just got a new contract.
Ups: The way teams like the Blues rest, rotate and bench test props makes it an even harder position to judge these days, and the country's best loosehead Joe Moody is out with injury. There isn't an established prop who had what could be termed a wow of a season. But Karl Tu'inukuafe's scrummaging is a clearly awesome.
Rising: Loosehead Xavier Numia caught the eye but the Hurricanes scrum was awful at times. From a layman's point of view, the new contenders are hard to separate. Scrum fortunes during games swing wildly, a picture made even murkier by all the re-sets and penalties. On a hunch, Crusader George Bower might be in the test frame if the usual suspects fall.
Downs: Rising All Black Tyrel Lomax has a discipline/technique/attitude problem with high shots. A couple of Australian props have actually been more dynamic than the Kiwis around the field.
Ups: Sam Whitelock was an imposing Super Rugby presence - he's still churning out the great games at the age of 32. Scott Barrett got close to his best. Patrick Tuipulotu - a magnificent captain at the Blues - had a storming return. There's a bloke called Retallick ready to fire up. And with that lot operating, there is still time for others to develop.
Rising: Giant Pari Pari Parkinson has definitely made strides this year and Tupou Vaa'i is building well although neither scream highest test quality.
Downs: Fringe 2020 All Black squad member Quinten Strange hasn't kicked on. The elephant in the room for the All Blacks is they will never replace the Whitelock-Retallick combo, the primary factor in their periods of test supremacy.
Ups: Sorry, but the cupboard has never been this bare. Let's face it - there are no dead-set, truly established, test superstars anymore in a position where New Zealand has often reigned supreme.
Rising: Dalton Papalii. There are others, but Papalii looks like genuine, hard-nosed, long term test muscle. Hoskins Sotutu has some amazing skills - his swivel pass to set up Papalii's try against the Force being an example of this.
Downs: Does a player like Sotutu really have that imposing test character, to be able to fight it out in the trenches and emerge on top against a team like England or South Africa at their physical best? For all of his energy, and fans, Ardie Savea has yet to confirm himself as a test great or even essential. His Hurricanes were loose cannons – he has to take some responsibility for that. His lack of influential authority at Super Rugby level should be a concern for the test side. His leadership has to be questioned. The highly respected Sam Cane is gone for the year with injury, and he doesn't have the aura of great loosies and captains past anyway. Put it this way. There isn't a Kaino-McCaw-Read combo out there.
Ups: Sensational Aaron Smith (obviously). He really is getting better with age. As far as all that yelling and screaming goes…at least there is only one of him.
It's a bit of a lottery - I like Finlay Christie. Is the mysterious Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi project still on? His Chiefs teammate Xavier Roe is getting growing attention. And his other Chiefs teammate Brad Weber is probably the All Black No. 2.
Downs: No one is in Aaron Smith's league, and the rest look ordinary by comparison. TJ Perenara - (apparently sidelined by a typically pointless rugby contract technicality and currently seeking reading material recommendations on Twitter) – hasn't delivered at the highest (World Cup) level. Who will step up? It's not clear. The quiet money is on Roe.
Ups: Richie Mo'unga is a world beater on his many good days. But he's still a test star wannabe.
Rising: Don't see anyone of note. Bit of a worry. Josh Ioane, the supposed next cab off the rank, plays at fullback for the Highlanders.
Downs: The Beauden Barrett-Richie Mo'unga debate will go on and on and on. Yawn. Both are flaky game managers, as is Damian McKenzie.
Ups: Anton Lienert-Brown is a brilliant footballer with a complete game.
Rising: Rookie possibilities…if only the selectors could make their minds up. Leicester Fainga'anuku looks a better bet than Rieko Ioane as a wing-to-centre convert,
Downs: It's a problem area. The All Blacks have failed to establish a combo and Jack Goodhue is injured. Rieko Ioane should have stayed on the wing. Fainga'anuku is raw and was caught badly short with a poor decision and ball control at the end of the Crusaders' points chase against the Rebels. It was hardly Conrad Smith or Ma'a Nonu stuff.
Ups: Sevu Reece is a workaholic pocket rocket. Put Rieko Ioane back on the wing and you might have another winner.
Rising: Speedy Jona Nareki has had a great season for the Highlanders.
Downs: Literally. Reece and Nareki are short men in an age of prolific cross field bombs which give tall wings an advantage. I suspect the cross kick will become even more of a set play weapon in rugby, as it is in league, because defences are so compressed and well honed. Alleged new superstar Caleb Clarke is a one-dimensional wrecking ball who didn't impress at the Blues before joining the Olympic sevens outfit.
Ups: Beauden Barrett, Jordie Barrett, Will Jordan, Damian McKenzie. For all of their faults, there's a lot of talent in there.
Rising: Jordan…amazing attacking potential but yet to prove he can deliver under intense pressure and his defence isn't overly convincing.
Downs: Barrett, Barrett, Jordan, McKenzie. None are the complete package, not with Beauden Barrett past his prime. Right now…it would probably be Jordie Barrett for my money, particularly as his long penalty goal potential is a serious weapon. Long term though, it has to be Jordan.