An area of certainty for the All Blacks has suddenly become one of intrigue and new possibilities.
A serious injury to Sam Cane, a loss of form for Akira Ioane, the re-emergence of Luke Jacobson, the rise of Tom Robinson and the coming of age of Dalton Papalii are among a handful of new developments in 2021 that are going to force the All Blacks to deeply consider their thinking at loose forward.
Shannon Frizell continues to grind out quality efforts with the Highlanders, Ardie Savea is bringing all his usual determination to the Hurricanes and Hoskins Sotutu looks to be finding himself the more he plays to confirm that there is no shortage of back row talent in New Zealand and yet an increasing uncertainty about how it will all ultimately fit together in the national team.
All Blacks coach Ian Foster will be viewing the landscape as one alive with possibility as he now has a diverse range of players suddenly presenting themselves as viable test options.
Choice is the luxury every coach wants and with 15 tests scheduled for this year, Foster has the chance to work through a range of combinations and build a variety of ways in which the loose trio can be built around the ubiquitous presence of Savea.
No one has done more to the change the picture this year than Papalii, who has hit one of those rare streaks of form where he looks like he could trip over his own feet, fall into a ruck and come out with the ball.
He spent most of his early career flitting between blindside and openside, gathering up a range of skills from both roles, to grow himself into a hybrid player who can forage like a No 7 and carry and tackle like a No 6.
Lachlan Boshier was universally labelled the unluckiest loose forward in New Zealand last year when he played superbly in Super Rugby and didn't make the All Blacks.
But Papalii was more deserving of the label, having played equally well in Super Rugby to be picked by the All Blacks but only make it on the field for a brief stint in Sydney.
That's unlikely to be his fate this year. He's going to be heavily involved because with Cane injured, the All Blacks will need a like-for-like replacement – a bruising, big-tackling seven who can just about pass himself off as a six.
It's debatable whether international rugby demands the same rigid positional definitions of old.
The game has such a heavy emphasis on the tackled ball area – particularly in the last quarter – that there is less need, or value, in working with a fetcher at seven and a bruiser at six.
There is an argument that both flankers should be just about interchangeable – that the more successful teams are operating with generic, multi-skilled loose forwards rather than out and out specialists.
And that's why Papalii is so valuable – he's an all-court footballer so he can play just about any role he's asked and find a way to combine with whoever else joins him in the back-row.
To some degree, Robinson is similar except he brings a hybrid lock-loose forward skill set.
At 110kg he's never going to be considered big enough to start a test at lock, but he could wear No 6 and play the sort of role Scott Barrett was asked to during the 2019 World Cup semifinal.
It was a sound plan shifting Barrett to blindside, but the execution on the night failed.
But stacking the lineout with additional height and playing with a tall, heavyweight No 6 like Robinson is an idea worth considering again as the All Blacks will be playing South Africa, Ireland and France this year.
He might not be a first option for the All Blacks, but two years out from the World Cup seems the right time to experiment with Robinson and see whether he can handle test football and bring something to it.
He can win lineout ball, clean-out rucks, forage, run, pass and tackle and if he can do all that in a black jersey, then Foster will have another option up his sleeve.
Robinson has been unmissable so far this year with his work rate setting the benchmark for everyone else.
Again, like Papalii, Robinson is an energetic, high-energy footballer who finds a way to get involved and make things happen in all the crucial contests.
Foster is perhaps seeing a picture unfold that he wasn't necessarily expecting, but it is one he will certainly be enjoying.