Ben Smith's sabbatical from much of the Rugby Championship and the end of year tour will provoke a fascinating jostle for positions in the All Blacks' back three - and one casualty could be Julian Savea.

He is just four test tries away from becoming the All Blacks' most prolific try scorer, surely a doddle for a bloke with 46 in 54 tests, three behind current record holder Doug Howlett.

Still only 26, Savea must be favoured to be the first All Black to score 50 test tries. But "The Bus" has shown signs of a slipping clutch in recent times - and not for the first time.

He has scored only one try in his last five tests (against Samoa this year) and you have to go back to last October, in the 37-10 dismissal of the Wallabies, to find anything like his previous try-scoring prowess.

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Relieved on the left wing by Rieko Ioane and Waisake Naholo during the Lions series, he returned for the deciding test but will be remembered mostly for the dropped pass which could have led to an early All Black score and a different result to that 15-15 draw.

Not that anyone is really blaming Savea - All Blacks errors, Sonny Bill Williams' red card and Beauden Barrett's goalkicking were bigger factors in the drawn series.

However, Savea has fluctuated between bench and the starting XV for the All Blacks and the Hurricanes in recent times - and was benched again for the clash with the Lions this weekend.

Up until now, Savea has always come back well from his absences and there have been enough benchings that they attract little attention. But his relegation against the [Super Rugby] Lions shows that an element little associated with the big winger - defence - may be affecting his present and maybe his future.

Even though the Hurricanes beat the Crusaders earlier this month, with Savea dangerous with the ball in hand, the Crusaders stretched out to an early lead through two tries to Seta Tamanivalu. Both exposed Savea and the Canes' left-hand edge.

At altitude in Johannesburg, kicks travel much further and Savea suffers a little from Big Winger Syndrome (the inability to turn as fast as smaller men); Nehe Milner-Skudder and Wes Goosen were preferred.

Savea doesn't seem to have lost noticeable pace and that shoulder- and hip-bump is alive and well. But Ioane showed the value of real pace and there is a feeling defences generally have realised that mobbing Savea before he winds up bears dividends.

Add to that the success of the [British and Irish] Lions with their kick-chase-squeeze tactics; that rush defence will not have gone unnoticed by Australia, South Africa and Argentina in the imminent Rugby Championship.

So the selectors may well stick with Israel Dagg on the right wing much of the time - though dented All Black pride may well see a return to the old art of doing what you do as opposed to what the opposition do. In other words, maybe attack-minded wingers on both flanks.

England coach Eddie Jones had a recent poke at the All Blacks after the Lions series, saying it had exposed their depth. There may now be a hint of truth in that in the forwards but the backs have more depth than the Mariana Trench, even with Smith's absence.

Savea, Naholo, Dagg and Ioane are joined by Jordie Barrett, possibly Damian McKenzie, and Milner-Skudder in competition for the back three, though the latter has yet to return to his pre-injury, slipping, sliding, sidestepping best. A 37-man squad for the end of year tour may mean all go - and it would certainly be a good place to Bring Back Bus (with apologies to Wayne Shelford).

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, in explaining his surprise selection of rookies Jordie Barrett and Ngani Laumape in the third Lions' test, referenced the 2019 World Cup and the need to build. It will be interesting to see how much he builds in coming weeks and in November.

In the pack Charlie Faumuina has gone, leaving a bigger hole at tighthead than most realise. On the loosehead, Wyatt Crockett is now 34.

Ofa Tu'ungafasi is clearly Faumuina's replacement but is yet to mark his authority at scrum or around the field in spite of his muscular build and athletic ability. He is some way from replicating Faumuina's double-act with Owen Franks - the latter grafting up front before Faumuina comes on to provide more ball-carrying punch as the game loosens up.

The Chiefs' Nepo Laulala could graduate now but hasn't yet impressed round the field.

Chiefs' benchwarmer and former NZ under-20 skipper Atu Moli - big and athletic - could be a bolter. Another Chief, Kane Hames, has loosehead claims with his scrummaging prowess; the Super Rugby semifinal will be important for him.

But All Blacks depth exposed? Maybe too big a claim - after all, any team that can leave out someone like Julian Savea still has riches aplenty.