This could be the make-it or break-it tour for Hoskins Sotutu. The big Blues No 8 has rather slipped down the contention ranks in the All Blacks' loose forwards – perhaps the most competitive position ahead of the 2023 World Cup.
It's hard to put your finger on precise reasons why, after a breakout 2020, he has been comparatively quieter this season for the Blues and the national team. In his first season, he was a devastating runner and offloader. This year, the runs have been less in evidence and, particularly for the Blues, he passed a lot more than taking – and breaking – the contact.
What's behind that is unclear, though it must be said Sotutu has probably the best catch-and-pass skills of any All Black loose forward. He has a particularly sweet, long pass off his left hand, seen to telling effect in a couple of All Blacks tries this year.
His ranging runs from the base of the scrum are a weapon although, surprisingly, in his eight tests before the US, Sotutu had not scored a try for the All Blacks.
There is no doubt he has dropped down the batting order – and his friends and colleagues are also his biggest obstacle. He's in direct competition with at least six of the eight loose forwards on this tour. The All Blacks took five to the last World Cup.
At blindside, Ethan Blackadder's emergence has been striking (he also offers a decent lineout variation) and Akira Ioane can play at 6 or 8 adeptly. Shannon Frizell is another who has claims at 6 or 8, as does Luke Jacobson, one of the five originally selected for the 2019 World Cup and admired by the All Blacks for his versatility, full-throttle tackling and ball-carrying.
That's a truckload of talent, whichever way you look at it. Even those not in direct competition – Sam Cane and Dalton Papali'i – create problems for him; Cane's re-appearance stands to squeeze up the loose forward ranks even tighter.
If Cane returns to captaincy and openside flanker (and it is an if, not a when), a fit and firing Ardie Savea will probably take precedence at No 8. Sotutu could, at a pinch, shift to 6 but he realistically has Ioane, Blackadder and Jacobson ahead of him there.
At No. 8, he is probably ranked behind Savea, Jacobson and maybe Ioane. However the latter, after an impressive early season, was muted against the big Springbok pack (he wasn't the Lone Ranger there either...). That's given Sotutu a potential opening.
If you were selecting a World Cup loose forward combination right now, the structure would probably closely resemble that of 2019 (Cane and Matt Todd as specialist 7s, Kieran Read at No. 8, Jacobson and Savea able to play in all three positions, if required). Frizell replaced Jacobson when his concussion flared up, invaliding him out of the tournament.
So you can see the intensity of the competition for World Cup spots, even if the selectors decide to increase the loose forwards to six for France in 2023 (as they did in 2015).
Sotutu has a lot to do but still he looks to have something special to offer, if he can only marshal it all. His rugby was originally played in the backs – you can tell, with those passing skills. But it's his running and offloading which can potentially breach tough defences the All Blacks will strike on this tour and, especially, in the World Cup.
Some will nod in the direction of Akira Ioane and the fact he had to focus more on the donkey work before beginning to blossom as an All Blacks loose forward – also with running and passing skills aplenty. Point taken... maybe Sotutu has more to do when it comes to cleaning out, defence and other basics, and he is only 23.
But those attacking abilities – breaking tackles and getting passes away – can spell the difference between winning a World Cup and not doing so. It will be dead interesting to see how much game time Sotutu and others get on this tour after a youthful team was selected against the US.
It's easy to sneer at the seemingly imbalanced test match between the All Blacks and the United States but it's clear it's a symbiotic relationship. The All Blacks need money from the rich US market; US rugby needs games against top sides to improve their standings (ranked 17th in the men's game, sixth in the women's).
The Eagles need a relevant international competition that brings some eyeballs – and money – into play and more games against top opposition.
Nothing brings a team up to speed more – call it the Sunwolves factor. The Japanese franchise from Super Rugby are no more but they illustrated just how quickly teams, which may first present as victims, can improve and surprise when exposed to better sides. The Sunwolves played 69 matches and won only nine – but among those nine were five former Super Rugby champions: the Bulls and Blues (2017), the Reds (2018) and the Waratahs and Chiefs (2019).