Three difficult tests face the All Blacks on their northern tour. Patrick McKendry and Gregor Paul look at the key questions confronting the team and individuals in the next few weeks.

Q: Which individuals from the All Blacks do you suspect are going to be the big winners on this tour?


: Charles Piutau looks born to play rugby at this level. He's impressed everyone with his attitude and ability. Good player, good kid, big future. But probably the two men who will do most to boost their standing are Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter - they will provide three big reminders of why they are considered two of the best to ever play the game.

PM: The two Charlies - wing Piutau and prop Faumuina - and, to a lesser extent, midfielder Ryan Crotty. Piutau is a man on the rise. A level-headed character, he has settled straight into the All Blacks environment and he has the confidence to express himself on the field. He doesn't appear that big but he is strong and his aggression into contact means he takes a lot of stopping. It's a bit early to say he has overtaken Cory Jane, an experienced player who has delivered time and again for the All Blacks, but he can make up some more ground on this tour should he keep progressing. Faumuina's ability to shine in his core roles as well as offer something different to Owen Franks in terms of ball-handling and elusiveness means he could put pressure on the Crusaders player. Crotty is a solid centre who makes few mistakes. He could put pressure on Ben Smith and Francis Saili for that place outside Ma'a Nonu.


Q: Is there any player in particular you feel the All Blacks can't afford to see injured on this tour?
GP: Aaron Smith and Ma'a Nonu are the two biggest concerns. Smith is head and shoulders the best halfback and there would be some uneasiness heading to Twickenham with, say, Tawera Kerr-Barlow and TJ Perenara as the only fit No9s. There would be a few options at 12 should Nonu be injured; probably Crotty would start and he'd be safe without quite having the same impact. Francis Saili would be a concern - too loose and inaccurate at the moment. Playing Carter there wouldn't be ruled out - but it would be best all round if Nonu stays fit.

PM: Kieran Read. The No8 has become the backbone of this team. Sam Cane can slot in for Richie McCaw and Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett are becoming more comfortable in the No10 jersey but Read is streets ahead in his position. McCaw did a good job there in Tokyo but he hasn't the power Read possesses nor does he have the bigger man's handling ability. Read's leadership is also a big factor. McCaw is still the boss when he is on the field, but Read is a natural leader who builds an easy rapport with referees. The Crusaders have relied on Read for years and now the All Blacks are beginning to as well.

Q: TJ Perenara is the only uncapped member of the tour group - do you think he'll get a run at some stage?
GP: Depending on results in Paris and London, it may be that Perenara is on the bench for the Irish clash and, if the game is under control, we'll see him in the final 20 minutes. The coaches are keen to see him play. He's an enormous ball of potential. A raw athlete with an incredible ability to spark - but they want to pick the right occasion for his debut.

PM: Hopefully, yes, because he has the natural talent to be the future first-choice halfback for Hansen. But for injuries he would have already made his test debut because he offers something different to Aaron Smith and Tawera Kerr-Barlow. Smith has speed and an excellent pass and Kerr-Barlow has strength and an extremely high work rate; Perenara has elements of all of those abilities plus an X-factor with which he can create something from nothing. The All Blacks are lucky to have such depth in this area.

Q: The contracts of many of the coaching team are due to expire - should they all be renewed?
GP: Yes. Some of the coaching team may not have had overwhelming success in their previous roles but they are delivering plenty in their current posts. Ian Foster has found himself as an assistant. Brian McLean is an astute analyst and Mike Cron has toughened and improved the forwards although has more work to do at scrum time.

PM: Barring some disastrous setbacks on this tour, then all can probably select themselves. Steve Hansen has proven to be an astute coach and selector with an eye for the bigger picture, while Ian Foster, Aussie McLean and Mick Byrne are all able lieutenants. All have contributed to a relaxed, yet professional atmosphere within the team, with constant improvement the top priority. If someone like 22-year-old Charles Piutau can come in and flourish so early in his career they must be doing something right.

Q: Is the scrum the only part of the All Blacks' game which is vulnerable in the Northern Hemisphere?
GP: No, although it would be the area where they are most likely to feel the pressure. But France and England especially are dangerous at the breakdown where they hit in numbers and use their size and power to counter-ruck well. Ireland are clever at lifting ball carriers and isolating them. France have a class midfield and Ben Smith will be tested defensively and let's not forget that England played lethal, fast, flowing football last year and there is no reason whey they can't do it again.

PM: Yes, it's the one big issue that Hansen and Co have yet to get right. They have proven to be good at targeting other perceived weaknesses. They put a lot of work into stopping the Springboks' driving maul this season which paid off and, while the lineout has been a little hit and miss, there are options available where the All Blacks can load the odds in their favour. Shifting bodies at the breakdown so they can execute their running game will be high on the agenda - but they managed that pretty well against Argentina, a team with a fondness for set pieces and slowing ball down this year.

Q: When the All Blacks return to London in 12 months, do you think they will be a vastly different team in either style or personnel?
GP: Not vastly different. Style-wise, they will tinker but essentially still want to be a triple-threat side in that they can attack by passing, running or kicking. The pecking order in some positions might be more fluid. Charlie Faumuina, for instance, might be ahead of Owen Franks. Steven Luatua pushing Liam Messam harder and there will be a heap of outside backs - Ben Smith, Cory Jane, Piutau, Julian Savea and Israel Dagg - competing for limited spots. It's hard to see new faces as such, but perhaps Jerome Kaino will have forced his way back in and a younger hooker, maybe Liam Coltman, will be close to selection.

PM: In short, no. Who will be missing? Probably hooker Andrew Hore, a player who appears to be about to hang up his boots. The locking mix will be different with Dominic Bird likely to have overtaken Jeremy Thrush to join Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick and Luke Romano. Steven Luatua will want to be closer to being first-choice No6 ahead of Liam Messam but, apart from TJ Perenara's expected rise and the return of Conrad Smith, there probably won't be too many changes. The style will be tweaked because of Hansen's desire to play a game based on speed and skill - good news for fans of running rugby - but his basic methodology will remain.