Five cracking rounds of Super Rugby Aotearoa have already provided plenty of positional debate for Ian Foster to muse over for this year's All Blacks side.
The two areas that stick out as the most contested, quite glaringly, are the loose forward and outside back trios. With five to six handy options on offer, only three can prevail.
So who's leading the race for the All Blacks' most contested positions? Lachlan Waugh takes a close look.
Predicted 2021 group:
6. Shannon Frizell
7. Ardie Savea
8. Luke Jacobson
20. Akira Ioane
Without an out and out number eight, the door remains ajar for someone to step up and take the spot dominated by Ardie Savea in 2020. In particular, Luke Jacobson has thrust himself right back into starting All Blacks contention. The versatile loosie has been a standout for the Chiefs in Super Rugby Aotearoa and has found a home at the back of the scrum in 2021.
Jacobson's daunting frame that combines leanness and power makes him imperative at the breakdown, fitting the mould of an athletic modern-day number eight. In both the Chiefs' recent wins over the Hurricanes and Blues, he made late-game plays in scoring and setting up tries, as well as winning penalties in the ruck that turned the results in their favour.
Jacobson's leadership potential is another reason why he needs as much exposure in test rugby as possible. His chances of becoming All Blacks captain in the future were as much a commendable characteristic as his playing ability during his rapid emergence in 2019.
While there should be little debate over Sam Cane's inclusion at openside, his untimely pectoral injury which has ruled him out for the next four to six months is a cruel blow. It means Savea will be able to return to his preferred role in the seven jumper, where he carried out his exploits in his World Rugby Player of the Year-nominated 2019 season.
Shannon Frizell looks to be in the form of his life and has been edging ahead of his closest competition with international experience in Akira Ioane.
The Highlanders hard-man sits on top of the competition in carries with 54 - 20 of which came against the Hurricanes in round five, resulting in an impressive 49 running metres. It's important to note many of those carries are coming in the trenches with a healthy average, showcasing his incredible physicality. Frizell's also been a menace on defence ranking in the top 10 of tackles made with 41.
A likely first-time inclusion this year is Crusaders rising blindside Ethan Blackadder who's immense performances continued against the Highlanders with his more traditional, raw style on show complete with an incredible work rate. He sits fourth equal in tackles with 53.
Hoskins Sotutu, Dalton Papali'i and Cullen Grace remain on the fringes.
Predicted 2021 group:
11. Caleb Clarke
14. Will Jordan
15. Jordie Barrett
23. Damian McKenzie
Injuries and overseas playing opportunities call for a minor reshuffle in the back three for 2021. Jordie Barrett and Damian McKenzie have been the two best backs of Super Rugby Aotearoa so far, and it's a shame there's only room for one in the starting side assuming we stick to the traditional positions of rugby union.
Barrett deserves an ongoing run at fullback, having single-handily orchestrated the Hurricanes backline into a realm of competency this year, with the side's current halves pairing being under-par. He is the competition's top point scorer, a stat helped by his incredible 30-point haul recently against the Highlanders.
His heavy involvement can be traced by his 39 carries which rank 10th in the competition.
For McKenzie, it's a comeback story of sorts with his minor relegation in the New Zealand rugby talent tiers, which can be traced back to his unfortunate ACL injury in April 2019 that ruled him out of all rugby – including the World Cup – until early 2020.
Few have the pace and footwork of McKenzie mixed in with his ability to double as a first-receiver, which has seen him push up and slip into that role at a successful rate off the breakdown and set-pieces. Arguably the 25-year-old's best game of the year came against the Blues in their last match where his game-winning try was surrounded by glimpses of his deceptive strength, that forced his way over for the winning five-pointer and prevented a Mark Telea score.
In the competition he is up there in key attacking stats, ranking first among fullbacks and fifth outright in metres gained with 255, and first among 15's and third overall in defenders beaten at 19.
Differing from Barrett and similarly to Cory Jane and Ben Smith in recent years, Crusaders fullback Will Jordan has a healthy number of minutes playing on the wing, and makes up for a lesser number of playmaking abilities with a scintillating running game. It is also a case of elimination with the recent injury to George Bridge limiting his playing time, and while Sevu Reece has lifted his game in 2021, he is far from his electric best shown two years ago. For Caleb Clarke, there's no debate needed for the game's most exciting young winger.
Though hot on their heels is potential All Blacks debutant Leicester Fainga'anuku who has been the competition's best on the Crusaders' left edge with the following numbers...
-First in defenders beaten and metres carried with 22 and 411 respectively.
-Second in carries with 50.
-Third in clean breaks with seven.
It leaves out one of the modern era's very best in Beauden Barrett, and he may have fallen on his own sword. Barrett is playing overseas with less eyes planted on his performances which, mixed in with the Japanese Top League's obvious lower-skilled style of rugby compared to Super Rugby in New Zealand and Australia, could be damaging.
A blistering performance off the bench, or an abundance of faith shown by Foster and Co. will be needed.