At the start of any new four-year cycle attention inevitably turns to which prospects will force their way into the first All Blacks squad of the season. Hoskins Sotutu, Will Jordan, Caleb Clarke and Pari Pari Parkinson are among rookies staking claims to fill voids left by the familiar post World Cup exodus.
Amid the clamour to anoint the next batch of emerging test stars, the question of whether the All Blacks will persist with their much-debated Richie Mo'unga-Beauden Barrett dual playmaking duo has been largely overlooked.
Last year, as the All Blacks went on to lose their one-sided World Cup semifinal to England, discussions around the merits of the Mo'unga-Barrett combination were inescapable.
As they prepare to face off this weekend in Christchurch, where Mo'unga will pull the strings for the Crusaders from first five-eighth and Barrett is expected to remain at fullback for the Blues, All Blacks coach Ian Foster has hinted he is likely to stick with that dual playmaker set-up.
The philosophy is similar to the Sam Cane-Ardie Savea scenario which centres on getting the best players on the park.
"Personally I've always said Beauden is a 10 who plays 15," Foster said in an extended interview with the Herald this week. "I love the way he plays at 15. Overall we're pretty satisfied with the Richie-Beauden thing - there was a lot of good stuff about that. Are we willing to continue that? Yes we are. If players aren't producing at the right level are we willing to change that? Yes we are.
"When it comes to who is playing it's not just about Beauden and Richie. It's about what other 10s and fullbacks are putting their hands up. We've got the likes of Jordie Barrett who is playing well. Damian McKenzie is coming back and his knee looks like it's come right and he's still finding his feet on the park. David Havili is playing well, so they'll all be part of the conversation.
"I haven't got a set formula in my mind yet."
Foster also revealed Barrett was close to following Brodie Retallick's lead by skipping an All Blacks campaign as he weighed how long to spend in Japan and which season to play for Suntory Sungoliath. In the end, Barrett's $1.5 million deal will see him miss the 2021 Super Rugby season with the Blues before returning to the All Blacks.
"Him playing in Japan doesn't impact on All Blacks plans. This decision was made 12 to 18 months ago. With some of the things put in front of him the options were do we as New Zealanders watch him zero of the next four years, or do we have him three years out of the four. We made a pragmatic decision that we'd love to have him three out the four.
"There were a whole lot of variables he was looking at. There was talk about another competition in Japan later in the year so it wasn't always his plan to miss another Super season, it might have been something later in the year.
"The way things have unfolded he has taken that option and we support that. It doesn't change our plans."
Foster was reluctant to single out individuals who have impressed him and fellow test selectors John Plumtree and Grant Fox but stressed they were intent on being swayed by performances during Super Rugby Aotearoa, which serves up virtual All Blacks trials every week.
"There are plenty of players who have been All Blacks who I know are desperate to use 2019 and push ahead, but on the same side there are some doors opening and there are some people where there wasn't an opportunity before but there is now.
"At the start of the year we wanted to use this new coaching group to see where we wanted to go and who we've got but also try to keep an open mind to what we're seeing."
With Brodie Retallick absent from this test season and All Blacks captain Kieran Read among those to call time on his elite career, Foster confirmed he is keeping a close eye on those positions in particular.
"You don't have to be Einstein to know we're spreading out net widely at lock. Scott Barrett's injury is going to make that worse and more obvious. If you're a young lock in this country right now then play well.
"With Reado going we're looking at eight and six and that whole combination. There are some players playing really well in that space.
"If you look at the outside backs we've got a lot of players playing well. That's different to lock. There's going to be some players who are playing really well who might not get selected.
"It's fun being an All Blacks coach. Those are the hard decisions you have to make.
"We've got Super Rugby and then a North-South game where we can maybe try a few things out as well. We've got a few occasions left for people to put their hands up."