One of the most interesting aspects of All Black selection this year and next will be the identity of the midfield.
Unlike the search for the All Blacks' third halfback, largely bereft of obvious choices so far, the midfield is over-populated; it will be fascinating to see if Steve Hansen & co stick with the test incumbents (Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty) or whether they re-model things ahead of next year's World Cup.
Crotty and Williams took the test spots on last year's end-of-season tour of Europe and both looked in command – Williams even adding a previously unseen kicking element to his game.
But both have looked a little shaky in recent times. Williams has been worried by injury so far this Super Rugby season and has looked vulnerable (he's been shown up for pace a time or two) and error-prone.
There's nothing too unusual in that. Old SBW often takes a while to get up to full gallop; he is as fit as a rat and there is no doubting his strength of purpose. Even at 34 (his age at the time of the next Cup), he will likely still be a force.
Crotty has been dogged by concussion injuries. He'll turn 31 in Japan if selected for the World Cup but it's entirely possible the doctors might have more sway over his selection than the selectors.
What is perfectly clear is that the selectors have a lot of choice – even after you count off Malakai Fekitoa, Seta Tamanivalu and George Moala, all candidates who decided not to enter the race and head for Europe instead.
Anton Lienart-Brown, Jack Goodhue, Ngani Laumape and even Rieko Ioane are all possibilities, particularly if centre is indeed Ioane's preferred position.
You'd have to say (this was written before the Chiefs-Blues match) that swapping Ioane from the wing to the Blues' midfield has not been an outstanding success thus far. They've taken a genuine threat in the open and put him in one of the most crowded corridors in the game. It's like watching a thoroughbred racehorse entered in the sack race.
Still, with time, the Ioane experiment could prove successful – and one area where the All Blacks have plenty of options is the wing. There's Waisake Naholo and, if he can beat his injury curse, a restored Nehe Milner-Skudder and a revived Julian Savea (if said revival occurs).
Experienced options include Ben Smith and Israel Dagg. Matt Duffie, clearly a back-up in the winger/fullback/high ball department, is there as are uncapped newcomers like George Bridge and Solomon Alaimalo while Ben Lam's undoubted potential is really beginning to flower on the Hurricanes' wing. Bridge and Lam have something of Ioane's express pace; Alaimalo is a formidable 1.96m, 100kg-plus customer who looks to have real talent.
So Ioane to the midfield could be an option if that level of back-up remains on the wings. However, it would be a shame to lose what Ioane so obviously brings to the All Blacks; he enables them to attack from anywhere on the field when he is on the outer edges. A midfield role would lose much of the roving commission he enjoys on the wing – and a key attacker would be bound up with defensive duties as well.
So who? Many will plump for Laumape's hell-bent, direct qualities at 12 and there is obvious scope for him to develop into that spot, offloads and all, if Williams doesn't make it or goes back to league or boxing or whatever. Laumape also has a good understanding with Canes' first-five Beauden Barrett, no small consideration, and he is a serious defender.
At centre, Anton Lienart-Brown is a talent, particularly when the ball is run in loose play. He has a sinuous, twisting style which can deceive defenders and is a good link man also quite at home at 12.
However, the Crusaders' Jack Goodhue gets my vote. He has a touch of the Conrad Smiths about him, with an extra bit of muscle. Like Smith (and Crotty), he consistently makes good decisions, is a reliable distributor and a good defender. He is one of those players coaches and colleagues love because he almost invariably does the right thing; teammates can read his play and benefit from it.
In the past two World Cups and pretty much ever since, the All Blacks have favoured a midfield consisting of one physical specimen and one playmaker; the bonus they received when Ma'a Nonu developed his passing and kicking game was considerable.
A Laumape-Goodhue axis might be favourite at present and reasonably closely complies with the physical/playmaker recipe. If Ioane moves to 13, it could signal a new All Black approach (one assumes they will have figured out the rush defence issue by then) and Lienart-Brown could partner him there; a Laumape-Ioane combo might be a tad predictable.
Confused? You bet – and that's the point. Six strong candidates, two test spots. How the selectors do that little piece of arithmetic will be intriguing.
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