If there is one position worth watching carefully when Super Rugby kicks off this week, it is the jerseys with the big No. 6 written on them.
That's because three international blindside flankers – Jerome Kaino, Liam Messam and Brad Shields – will be missing this year and there is formidable competition among contenders in the tight-loose department of the 31-strong All Black squad for the Japan World Cup.
Let's assume the following players will be in the loose forward section of that squad: Skipper Kieran Read, Liam Squire, Ardie Savea – and let's also assume that Sam Cane will make a successful return from his broken neck, though he is likely to miss half of Super Rugby at least. A third No. 7 seems necessary; Auckland's Dalton Papali'i and the Crusaders' Matt Todd may duel it out for that spot with Papali'i possibly favoured as he can maybe cover 6 better.
That leaves back-up at 6 and 8 open, with maybe two spots available depending on how the selectors shape their squad; they could economise by taking three locks, for example, and use a tight-loose forward as lock cover as they have done in recent times.
Squire can cover 8, so the focus will mostly be on blindside flanker, with the most obvious candidates being already-All-Blacks Vaea Fifita (Hurricanes), the Highlanders' Jackson Hemopo, Luke Whitelock and Shannon Frizell, and the Crusaders' unlucky Jordan Taufua – selected for the All Blacks last year but prevented from taking the field by injury.
All have claims but none has really promoted himself ahead of the others. Fifita has fought his way back into contention after improving his defensive and breakdown skills to go with his obvious attacking ability.
Frizell looked the most Kaino-like in his first outings but then had some quiet test matches; he too was called on to improve his defensive credentials but, in so doing, his offence seemed to suffer. Hemopo had a good November tour and is a lock/flanker option likely to be played at 6 by the Highlanders with the promising Pari Pari Parkinson likely to come in at lock. Hemopo's ability in the second row could boost his stocks with the All Black selectors.
Whitelock is primarily an 8 and his defence is unquestionably good; his offence – not so much. Taufua has a ton of guts and can theoretically cover 6, 7 and 8, so appeals as a good squad option. He is the smallest candidate physically but has a heart the size of Phar Lap's and would run full tilt at a petrol tanker if that was the brief.
It will, as always, come down to the All Blacks' game plan for the World Cup, form and injury but it will be a fascinating sub-plot in this year's Super Rugby tournament.
There is another name which could yet be jotted into the selectors' notebooks: Akira Ioane. There are already plenty of question marks against his name: fitness, discipline, defence and an inclination to view the breakdown as someone else's problem.
But if he picks up in those areas this season, his pace, bruising running and a fend like Michael Jones' could be a useful weapon in Japan, though common sense suggests the grind of the World Cup knockout phases may count against him.
If Cane doesn't quite make it back or is re-injured, that could also change the selectors' thinking and the make-up of the squad; no Cane means a premier tackler, fetcher and breakdown specialist would need to be replaced, no easy feat.
If that happens, opensides like recent All Black Dillon Hunt could be considered again through the Hurricanes' Gareth Evans – whose All Black career so far consists about half an hour against Japan last year – had an excellent past season, can play all three loose forward positions and may be the most Cane-like.
Uncapped players like Blake Gibson (Blues), James Lentjes (Highlanders) and maybe Mitchell Karpik (Chiefs) could come into view though all of the above will have to show up hugely in Super Rugby to beat Todd out.
But perhaps the most interesting head-to-head comparison will be between Frizell and Fifita. Their two sides are drawn to meet on Friday, March 8 and that will be a virtual All Black trial should they both be uninjured and selected.
Frizell perhaps appeals most in terms of the likeliest selection. He has the same air of jolting menace that Kaino had and maybe just needs to impose himself more. Fifita has remarkable pace but still sometimes looks an unstructured, even unpredictable player – no bad thing, perhaps.
But if it came to a World Cup final with the All Blacks camped on the opposition goal line and the forwards barging at the defence in the last seconds, you get the feeling Frizell might be more physically qualified to crunch his way over to win the game…