Anyone peaking into the future in the week of the first test against the British & Irish Lions, couldn't have imagined the All Blacks starting lineup would be looking the way it is for the last game of the year.

For the record, there are only three forwards starting in Cardiff – Codie Taylor, Sam Whitelock and Sam Cane – who played at Eden Park on June 24 and five backs – Aaron Smith, Beauden Barrett, Sonny Bill Williams, Ryan Crotty and Rieko Ioane.

But as significant as the statistic of more than half the team being different is, it doesn't alone portray how much the team this week has strayed from all expectations.

Neither Kane Hames nor Nepo Laulala were even in the squad to play the Lions and the former in particular barely had any kind of public recognition.


Patrick Tuipulotu, who starts at lock in Cardiff, hadn't been able to make the Blues team for much of Super Rugby and had in fact been dropped out of the squad to play the Lions because he failed to notify anyone he was running late for training.

In June Tuipulotu felt a long, long way from being anywhere near the All Blacks in 2017. His confidence was low, his form patchy and he was heading entirely in the wrong direction.

Luke Whitelock, who will win his second cap this weekend, wasn't nose-diving like Tuipulotu, but he was probably just as far away from a test call up.

He's been a quiet achiever with the Highlanders in the last two years and one of the game's big improvers, but it has taken a long list of injuries and defections to bring him the No 8 jersey.

The miraculous recovery of Rieko Ioane has denied Seta Tamanivalu his first appearance on the wing and that, if it had happened, would have been another almost unimaginable scenario back in June.

And the final surprise that would have been difficult to foresee is the captaincy being held by Sam Whitelock. He is a deserving and capable candidate, but he is in the job because Read has been ruled out, Ben Smith isn't here and Sam Cane has been overlooked on the basis he may not play the full 80 minutes.

It has been a tumultuous five months for the All Blacks in respect of injury and unavailability. At no time in the last five or six years have they ended a season with a team deemed to be their strongest that is so different to the one with which they started.

As a comparison, in 2016 nine of the team that started the first test against Wales, started the last test against France. There were, though, 14 of the match day 23 involved in both games, with Aaron Smith and Aaron Cruden starting in June before swapping with
TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett who were on the bench in June and started in November.

The only things that would have been hard to foresee looking ahead from June last year were the sudden emergence of Anton Lienert-Brown, who was nowhere near the All Blacks in the series against Wales but started against France and the fast-tracking of Ioane who won his second cap off the bench in Paris having begun the year as a unknown 19-year-old at the Blues.

It may well have been an unprecedented year of change for the All Blacks and even the coaches may feel they have been taken into selection territory for this last game that has surprised them.

But coach Steve Hansen was adamant that all he and the management team can do is play the hand they have been dealt and have faith it is good enough.

"There is not much we can do about it," said Hansen. "We have just got to look at the positives of it and they are that a lot of people who wouldn't normally be getting opportunities are getting them and in the long run that will be good for us.

"And you know this is a team that we have a lot of faith in him so they have just got to go out and do the job."