Normally, All Black northern tours see the focus squarely on senior players, the leaders, when it comes to matching up against the likes of Wales, Ireland and France. This time, however, there will be keen interest on 21- and 20-year-old rookies, locks Tupou Vaa'i and raw newcomer Josh Lord.
Lord's surprise arrival seems prompted by two shortcomings – a lack of 2m-plus locks and the recent embarrassment of the All Black lineout by the Springboks' Eben Etzebeth.
Sam Whitelock was missing (and missed) in that match – but the All Black selectors are clearly interested in future-proofing second-row stocks.
Until now, the All Blacks have looked well off in that department. Brodie Retallick and Whitelock are world-class and have played more than 50 tests together. Scott Barrett is close to 50 tests, he is only 27 and should be involved for some time yet. Behind them come Patrick Tuipulotu and seven-test Vaa'i.
Closer scrutiny tells a different story. This week saw Whitelock's 33rd birthday; he will be rising 35 at the next World Cup. No one would bet against New Zealand's most capped lock being in France in 2023, such has been his durability and dependability – and he has a chance to be the only player in the world to win three World Cups, a powerful motivation. However, international rugby is a brutal strain on bodies.
Etzebeth's performance, possibly his best ever against the All Blacks in the final match of the Rugby Championship, highlighted the All Blacks' lineout deficiencies. Part of that was down to odd decisions; they tended to throw it where Etzebeth was, as opposed to where he wasn't. Throws of different speed and arc can solve that – but it's easier to direct the ball to your own 2m jumper who is not being marked by a seasoned poacher like Etzebeth.
Part of it was also down to the fact that Barrett and Tuipulotu are not top lineout exponents; powerful and athletic men, they can be upset at lineout time. Both are absent from the northern tour for family reasons. Tuipulotu may even have done his dash with the All Blacks, with opponents now well aware of the best tactic to beat them – disrupt the set-piece, bully the breakdown and defend like lions. You wonder if the All Blacks can afford him and Barrett.
That leaves Vaa'i, still only 21 and in a position where maturity and assuredness usually comes later in life. The great Andy Haden was the same age when he made his All Blacks debut in 1972 – and it took him five more years to get back in the team, his reputation dented by being introduced too early.
Yet if the All Blacks are to impose their brand of rugby on the 2023 World Cup, their first task will be to shore up the set-piece – including specialist lineout winners with other qualities expected of All Blacks: skills, athleticism and an engine big enough to support fast-paced, counter-attacking and phase-based play.
That could mean promoting Vaa'i above Barrett and Tuipulotu, even after this northern tour. He has huge potential; he's not quite 2m (1.98m) but he is an athlete who runs and carries well – and it's now time to toss him into the fire, feed him mean pills and stand well back.
His two tries against the Pumas in the Rugby Championship underlined the promise. His only other Test start was against Australia in the same championship, where he performed strongly in the tight stuff.
New Zealand has always suffered – in comparison to more populous countries – from a lack of genuinely big lineout men, so Lord's selection is timely.
However, being 2m is not always a ticket to the races. Dominic Bird was a giant of a man back in 2017 but was judged not to have enough in his general play; Isaac Ross was another 2m-plus stretch in 2009, a real athlete and ball runner jettisoned, it was said, because he didn't provide enough grunt in the scrum or breakdown.
Pari Pari Parkinson is another over 2m but he hasn't yet convinced around the field; he either tends to carry the ball too upright or too low, making him easy to defend against in spite of his size and combativeness.
Coach Ian Foster deserves praise for doing away (so far anyway) with a long-held All Black practice – co-opting players who are essentially loose forwards into locks, bringing the speed and skills of a loosie but not always lineout craft.
Over the years, the likes of Reuben Thorne, Todd Blackadder, Jono Gibbes, Jackson Hemopo and others more than did their bit as locks but suffered in the neither-one-thing-nor-the-other department.
Foster has stuck with specialists. The All Blacks have previously tried the unlucky Quinten Strange (selected for the 2020 Rugby Championship but injured before he got on the field), replaced him with the now-injured Mitchell Dunshea – and now Lord.
His progress, and that of Vaa'i, will be closely watched.