By Tom Vinicombe of RugbyPass.com
The first All Blacks squad of 2019 will be announced early next month.
The make-up of the team is still being kept under wraps, but we can expect to see a squad bigger than the usual 31 named for this year's Rugby Championship.
An away match in Argentina will give the selectors the chance to rest some of the season's busier performers whilst the Maori All Blacks also have two matches on their schedule that may be used as a way of giving more game time to some of the players who have lacked it in 2019.
Regardless of the structure of the first team of the year, Steven Hansen and co's selections will telegraph the side that we can expect New Zealand to take to the World Cup in September.
Joe Moody and Owen Franks have had relatively quiet seasons due to injury. Franks has managed just five appearances to date and will be gunning for as much game time as possible.
The Blues pairing of Ofa Tu'ugafasi and Karl Tui'nukuafe are guaranteed selections. Tu'inkuafe was absent from the Blues' last month of fixtures due to illness but was training with his side in the final week of the competition.
The fifth propping berth will likely fall to Nepo Laulala, who has primarily been used off the bench in recent weeks for the Chiefs. His teammates Angus Ta'avao and Atu Moli could be the next cabs off the rank, should injury strike, otherwise Highlander Tyrel Lomax has shown plenty of promise this year.
Expect to see the usual trio of Dane Coles, Codie Taylor and Nathan Harris named as hookers – though Liam Coltman won't be far behind.
Coltman needed to make a huge statement if he wanted to usurp one of the incumbents and while his work at the breakdown is possibly the best of any hooker in the country, his poor lineout throwing over the weekend won't have helped his cause.
Taylor's backup at the Crusaders, Andrew Makalio, has come on in leaps and bounds in 2019 and wouldn't look out of place in an All Blacks jersey.
Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick and Scott Barrett will obviously be the first-choice match-day trio come the World Cup. A fourth lock is possibly a luxury that the selectors won't be able to justify – but if they do opt for one then it's likely a straight shootout between Patrick Tuipulotu and Jackson Hemopo.
Highlander Hemopo might have curtailed his All Blacks career when he announced his departure from New Zealand rugby at the end of the season, but his form has been very solid to date. His ability to cover flanker would make him a very hand squad player for the pool stages of the World Cup – an advantage he has over Tuipulotu. Whilst Tuipulotu has been in and out of the All Blacks squad for a number of seasons, he still hasn't cemented a spot and hasn't done anything in 2019 to prove that he deserves a place in the team.
Pari Pari Parkinson started the year well for the Higlanders but played less of a role as the season progressed. A Maori All Blacks spot beckons for the young second rower.
Sam Cane's return from a serious neck injury will see him resume his spot in the 7 jersey for the All Blacks. Ardie Savea has been in career-best form for the Hurricanes and is unlucky to probably end up in a bench role, but his ability to cover all three loose-forward positions is invaluable.
Liam Squire managed just a pair of games for the Highlanders at the end of the season but showed enough to suggest he'll start the international year as New Zealand's premier blindside flanker. Squire could also suit up for the Maori in the week preceding the start of the Rugby Championship to get an extra match under his belt. The selectors won't be happy with his ludicrous shoulder charge over the weekend, which buried the Highlanders' chances of scoring an unlikely win over the Crusaders.
Squire's Highlanders teammate Shannon Frizell has looked the best of the potential backups. His aerial game and strong tackling should see him fight off the challenges of the likes of Akira Ioane, Vaea Fifita and Luke Whitelock.
Kieran Read, who is still building into his work, will naturally captain the side as the eighth man. Four locks would mean no space for a sixth loose forward. Young guns Tom Robinson and Luke Jacobson will benefit from another season before being elevated into the national team.
The usual one-two punch of Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara will be retained for the bulk of the tournament, but Brad Weber's exceptional form and leadership for the Chiefs will see him deservingly take a spot as the third halfback in the team.
Were it not a World Cup year then Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi's lack of game-time and lack of experience would not count against him – but now's not the time to be focusing on the future when the All Blacks have a tournament to win.
At first five, Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo'unga will be first- and second-choice – in that order. Mo'unga may be pulling the strings better than Barrett right now, but Hansen knows what he'll be getting with Barrett in the saddle.
Damian McKenzie's injury opened the door for another first five to stake a claim, but Josh Ioane is really the only player to put his hand up – but he still has a number of work-ons that might restrict him to fighting it out for the 10 jersey with Otere Black in the Maori All Blacks.
Ngani Laumape is firmly entrenched as the fifth best centre in the country. With Hansen's recent praise of Sonny Bill Williams implying the match-starved midfielder's spot is safe, it's hard to see Laumape getting a look in ahead of Anton Lienert-Brown, Ryan Crotty and Jack Goodhue.
After Laumape, Ma'a Nonu has done enough to show that he would be up for international football, if called upon.
There's an excellent crop of young midfielders coming through the ranks in New Zealand, and the departure of Crotty and (probably) Williams next year could open up some spots.
Rieko Ioane and Ben Smith are obvious starters in the back three. Determining who should partner them is a tougher question.
Jordie Barrett's utility means he's a certainty for the squad – but he probably isn't adept enough at fullback or on the wing to be starting the crunch games. Questions have been raised about Waisake Naholo but his form in the last few weeks should see him selected for the tournament.
The other option for the right wing is someone who has yet to establish themselves in the squad. The Crusaders trio of George Bridge, Sevu Reece and Will Jordan probably have the greatest up-sides to their games.
Reece is an out-and-out wing so will probably struggle to make the team, given that Ioane will be camped out on the left. Jordan has proven excellent for the Crusaders in his debut season but hasn't been sighted since May due to a lingering foot injury. That leaves Bridge in the box-seat. Bridge can cover both wing and fullback and has exceptional pace to burn – shown in his All Blacks debut against Japan last year.
Other names that have been touted for selection include David Havili, Solomon Alaimalo and Ben Lam. The latter two have underperformed compared to last year and won't earn selection ahead of some of the other candidates, whilst Havili has a habit of following up excellent matches with very poor ones.
Likely All Blacks squad for the World Cup
Dane Coles, Codie Taylor, Nathan Harris
Props: Joe Moody, Karl Tu'inukuafe, Owen Franks, Nepo Laulala, Ofa Tu'ungafasi
Locks: Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett, Jackson Hemopo
Loose Forwards: Liam Squire, Shannon Frizell, Sam Cane, Ardie Savea, Kieran Read
Halfbacks: Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara, Brad Weber
First Fives: Beauden Barrett, Richie Mo'unga
Midfielders: Ryan Crotty, Sonny Bill Williams, Jack Goodhue, Anton Lienert-Brown
Outside Backs: Rieko Ioane, Waisake Naholo, Ben Smith, Jordie Barrett, George Bridge