Everyone wants to join the All Blacks club
Young men across New Zealand have coveted a black jersey for about as long as anyone can remember, but the intensity and scale of that desire has heightened as a result of the All Blacks' success last year.
The power of the brand has been most visible in the way so many players turned down the chance of appearing at the Olympics to instead hold on to their All Black jersey. It's also visible in the way greater numbers of players have been prepared to make longer term commitments: Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock, Sam Cane, Dane Coles, Julian Savea and Brodie Retallick have all signed four-year deals and would be strong candidates to see out their careers in New Zealand.
There is only way to get into this exclusive club - and that is to earn the spot.
Players aren't stupid and they can see that while there are vacancies in the national team, there is also a significant amount of competition vying to fill them. In the past, there has been a dearth of suitable candidates in certain positions - but not now. New Zealand lost the greatest first-five to play the game after the World Cup, but there are two world class performers - Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett - jostling for the No10 shirt, plus Lima Sopoaga and the enormously exciting Damian McKenzie.
Sam Cane is the ready-made replacement for Richie McCaw but the Chiefs openside faces competition from Ardie Savea, while Blake Gibson at the Blues is a promising outsider.
No other country has depth like it and the competition breeds excellence and stamps out complacency.
New Zealand's teams appear to have an edge in their conditioning - a perception clarified by the statistics produced by the Chiefs. To the naked eye, the speed of their general play and movement appears to be quicker than all other teams, but it's their ability to finish so strongly that illustrates their fitness advantage.
They have scored 22 of their 35 tries in the second half of games this year and 14 of those have been in the final 20 minutes.
"We are a very fit side," coach Dave Rennie said. "We have been pretty clinical in those last parts to storm home. I think our support play and our ability to keep the ball alive's been massive, and a lot of that comes down to our conditioning as well."
An early feature of the season has been how quickly a handful of new players have been able to make an impact. The likes of Gibson, Tom Sanders, Taleni Seu, Vaea Fifita and Richie Mo'unga have seamlessly jumped from provincial rugby to Super Rugby.
Neither Australia nor South Africa produce such volumes of ready-made Super Rugby players.
New Zealand's wider talent identification programme has been willing to take risks with the sorts of athletes it is willing to promote and develop. Many countries would have shied away from selecting players such as McKenzie, Cruden, Aaron Smith, Brad Weber and Nehe Milner-Skudder on the basis they were too small. Instead, New Zealand teams have been able to pose different questions by having such variety at their disposal. The pace, footwork, vision and skills brought by the small players has transformed the attacking potential of the Chiefs, Hurricanes and Highlanders in particular.
New Zealand teams dominate the statistical fields of offloads and line breaks. The Crusaders lead the competition in offloads and line breaks - with the Chiefs, Hurricanes and Highlanders in the top five for the former. The Chiefs, Hurricanes and Blues are in the top five for line breaks and also defenders beaten. The New Zealand teams are doing what they can to keep the ball alive, stretch and break defences and give themselves opportunities to score tries.
It's not just that the New Zealand teams are creating more opportunities, they are more clinical in the business of converting what they create. The Chiefs, averaging 5.7 tries a game and 41.3 points per game, are lethal. The Crusaders, averaging 33.6 points and 4.4 tries per game aren't far behind and at 28.5 points per game and 26.4, the Highlanders and Hurricanes are also enjoying high conversion rates.
All five New Zealand teams have borrowed the All Blacks' strategy at the World Cup of more regularly using linespeed to disrupt opponents around the tackled ball rather than throwing bodies in to compete for it.
The Highlanders are conceding only 6.5 penalties a game - the lowest in the competition, while the Chiefs and Crusaders are respectively conceding 8.7 and 8.8 penalties per game - the next best figures.
The Crusaders are also conceding only 12.5 turnovers a game - the lowest in the competition with the Blues at 14.6 and the Hurricanes at 15, in the top five.
Experience is proving to be a decisive factor in regard to coaching impact. The Chiefs, Highlanders and Crusaders have three of the longest-serving head coaches in the competition and all three - Dave Rennie, Jamie Joseph and Todd Blackadder - are showing that they can feel the ebb and flow of the competition. All three teams are making wise selections each week, adapting their strategies and showing that they understand how to manage a campaign.
New Zealand has a reputation for producing running teams - which they do. But they also kick the ball more than most opposition teams, too. The statistics show that the Highlanders lead the competition for kicking out of hand with an average of 28 per game but have also carried for an average of 439m which is in the top five.
The Crusaders have a similar balance with 23 kicks per game and 480m, while the Chiefs lead the competition for metres gained with 544, with the Hurricanes second at 540m. They kick on average 17.4 times and 20.7 times per game.