Carter's departure fails to leave the gap opposition will have been hoping for.

Wales, desperate to convince themselves the All Blacks are vulnerable, will be a little shattered to learn the queue to replace Daniel Carter is three-deep and playing such good football that the coaching group is having trouble separating them.

Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett and Lima Sopoaga have each made a genuine case to start at Eden Park. Cruden is the most likely to be named in the All Blacks' No 10 jersey for the first test, given his experience and proven ability as a tactical general.

Cruden, on balance, has been that little bit more influential in Super Rugby. In terms of skills portfolios, there's not much to separate the three contenders. They all run well, distribute accurately and have a diverse range to their kicking games.

But Cruden brings that composure and strong decision-making that test victories are built on and enables him to bring out more from the team.


In the first test of what is a new era, the All Blacks coaching panel know the importance of playing their rugby in the right areas of the field; of balancing risk against reward and exuding an authority and certainty in who they are and what they are doing.

They trust all three players to deliver what they need but it was Cruden who was putting the most pressure on Carter between 2012 and 2014 before succumbing to a serious knee injury early last year.

"It's pretty special, isn't it, that one player has gone who has been there for a long time and you have got three players who have all been there before and all three are playing well," said All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster.

"So that is what is making it hard [to pick one]. They have all come in in really good form and confident and each of them wants to play.

Press conference with All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster, talking about the midfield backs and 1st-five’s Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett and Lima Sopoaga.

"We have been trying to harness that. We still want them to work together from a collective sense and I am really pleased they are doing that so, whoever does get the nod in whichever test it is, we want all three working hard together because we are going to have to grow that group because we know we are going to need all three at some point.

"They are working hard to understand the game so they can drive the team around the park and that is probably their focus at the moment."

There's perhaps a hint in there from Foster about what lies ahead for the trio. Cruden is likely to start in Auckland but not necessarily for the duration of the series as the selectors want to be covered in the event of injury and to also have effective, alternative weaponry on the bench.

They will be reluctant to head into the Rugby Championship without Barrett and Sopoaga having had some game time in the driving seat and the challenge will be finding the right way to allow that to happen. Barrett has been an All Black for four years but, of his 36 caps, only six have come wearing the No 10 jersey.

His ability to play fullback and make a significant impact late in the game has earned him a reputation as a great impact player. Foster acknowledges that's both a welcome label and one that at times Barrett would rather not have.

Press conference with All Blacks locks Luke Romano and Brodie Retallick, talking their game and the upcoming tests against Wales.

"I think he probably does and he doesn't [like being called an impact player]," Foster said. "It's not bad to be called a world-class impact player and we think he is. We think he is outstanding in terms of changing the game and that is one title that we think he can bank. Now he wants to be world-class in terms of a starting role and that is fine. We want him to drive for that, too.

"But the fact is he is really good at both. Is that going to pigeonhole him? No, it is not, but it does mean he has got a role in this group, if he's not starting, that is pretty powerful. So whichever way we go throughout this year, he's going to get opportunities in both, I would imagine. He's just got to keep doing what he's doing."

The battle for the No 10 jersey

Aaron Cruden

Probably viewed as the preferred option to start in Auckland but may be asked to sit one test out to give either Sopoaga or Barrett an opportunity to drive the team.

Beauden Barrett

Will most likely be involved in all three tests against Wales - possibly from the bench in all. May be given a start in one, though, possibly Dunedin.

Lima Sopoaga

If Cruden starts, Sopoaga is hard to accommodate on the bench because Barrett offers more versatility and punch. He's a contender to start on his home track in Dunedin or at least be on the bench if Barrett is wearing No 10.