There will be a few All Blacks – 19 of them, to be precise – hoping "Japan Syndrome" doesn't occur this year.

All Black forays to Japan are rare (only twice in the last 31 years) and both times (1987 and 2013) have featured slightly weird-looking All Black teams and the death of a few careers.

The 2018 All Black selectors have chosen 51 players for Japan and Europe, 19 of whom are heading up for the Japan leg only. For some the tour will be a kind of All Black trial, others are more like participants in an academy.

The latter category includes novices like Canterbury first-five Brett Cameron, elevated after only a handful of Mitre 10 Cup games and one for the Crusaders, young props Tyrel Lomax and Reuben O'Neill, hooker Asafo Aumua, flanker Dillon Hunt, halfbacks Mitchell Drummond and Bryn Hall and even winger-fullback George Bridge.


The former category includes Damian McKenzie, given a chance to gazump Jordie Barrett at fullback tonight.

Many of the first cohort may play against Japan while the big boys head off for the European leg of the end-of-year tour and they will be hoping that Japan Syndrome – where little known players end up remaining little-known – does not apply.

It's possible with this parade of potential players to sniff at the cheapening of the jersey. Cameron is a perfect example of how modern touring is a kind of rugby petri dish, where experiments are held, and microscopically observed; he showed some definite All Black potential in the Mitre 10 Cup semifinal and final.

There's some precedent for this. In the Japan tour of 1987, a halfback called Graeme Bachop was plucked out of obscurity by coach John Hart before he had played for Canterbury. It was a master selection, even though Bachop played second fiddle to Bruce Deans.

Bachop went on to become a more accomplished All Black, playing 31 tests, notable for his lightning pass, arguably even quicker than that of Aaron Smith, and being pretty much the best halfback on view in the 1995 World Cup in South Africa.

But while Japan was an enjoyable entrée for Bachop, others in that 1987 party found themselves binned like stale sushi.

Prop Robbie McLean was a shock selection, played two matches (no tests) on that '87 tour and was never seen again in national colours. Winger Paul Simonsson had a slippery sidestep, decent pace and a good first-class record with Waikato – but suffered the same fate of two matches and then a ticket to nowhere.

In 2013, things were even odder. The test against Japan marked the only time in All Black history that both locks had surnames belonging to an aviary – Jeremy Thrush and Dominic Bird. Thrush had a brief but generally successful All Black career (12 tests) while Bird, an impressive physical specimen, flew straight to the fringes.


He played his first test against Japan, another against Scotland in 2014 and was briefly re-introduced to the All Blacks with a match against a French XV on last year's end-of-year tour. Injury also intervened; he is now playing in France.

Winger Frank Halai and midfielder Francis Saili were in that 2013 Japan test and were quickly jettisoned. Both now play in Europe. Wellington prop Jeffery Toomaga-Allen also made his debut in Japan in 2013 but suffered the same fate as Bird - reinstated for last year's end of season tour to Europe but left out of this year's.

So tours to Japan can open the door to little-known prospects but can slam shut too. In which case, Luke Whitelock will be hoping there is no repeat of 2013. It took four long years before he was back in the All Blacks fold; he played four tests this year, mostly thanks to Kieran Read's injury.

He is scrapping for his place now – which is one of the areas where the All Black "trial" dimension comes in. The loose forwards in the All Black 51 look the area of most intense competition. We can probably accept that (barring injury) Read, Ardie Savea, Sam Cane, Liam Squire and Matt Todd are certainties for the 2019 World Cup squad of 31.

There is likely only one place up for grabs – for someone who can play 6 and/or 8. That means Whitelock, Vaea Fifita, Gareth Evans, Jackson Hemopo and bolter Dalton Papali'i could be aiming at that one spot, with Shannon Frizell in the wings at the moment with injury.

In that context, you have to nod respectfully in the direction of the All Black selectors with their choice of Papali'i. Before the recent Auckland-North Harbour clash, Harbour flanker Hunt was favoured to fill the No. 7 slot made vacant vacated by Cane's neck injury.

Hunt's strengths are turnovers and tackling – and he burgled a turnover early in the match. From there on, things didn't quite go according to plan. His ball-carrying was comfortably defended and he was twice easily shrugged off by Akira Ioane. Meanwhile, Papali'i tackled everything that moved, set up a try and carried the ball effectively.

He will go to Europe with the "A" squad while Hunt, still only 23, has time to develop and succeed – and hopefully avoid Japan Syndrome.