Here's a sentence you don't see very often: this weekend's Mitre 10 Cup action could be vital for All Blacks selection.
After years of our provincial competition being the metaphorical equivalent of the lost continent of Atlantis, it has bounded back into calculations with (a) the number of All Blacks playing and (b) the stated intention of All Blacks coach Ian Foster to add 10 or 11 players to his 35-man squad for the Rugby Championship.
Many of those players are likely to come from Mitre 10 Cup ranks and it's to be hoped the All Blacks selectors shape their decisions with a continuing eye to the future. After all, this weirdo international championship in the time of Covid-19 is the ideal time to experiment.
Even if some of the chosen don't play much, selection with an eye to the future accomplishes three things: it ties the selected players to an All Black future or at least means they cannot easily play for another country; it gives them time in an All Black environment, always useful; and they can plan depth in positions where it is needed.
So while not all of the extra 10 or 11 players may be newbies, it's likely many will be. Two years ago, when the All Blacks were playing tests in Japan and Europe, the selectors took a massive 51 players with some travelling only to Japan, a roster including some who have not since come close to national selection.
It used to make some fans bristle – the All Black jersey being used as a kind of rugby petri dish - but those days are long past; the start of a four-year World Cup cycle is an ideal time for experimentation.
So which positions may have an extra player or two and who will they be? Here's a best guess:
Hooker: Otago's Liam Coltman is the obvious choice but he has been less impressive lately and the selectors might plump for youth in Taranaki's Ricky Riccitelli.
A stronger bet might be Andrew Makalio of Tasman and the Crusaders. With the All Blacks looking to increase their physicality, the powerful Makalio could interest them and he played well against Northland on Friday night.
Prop: Auckland' s Angus Ta'avao has only just returned from injury but can play both sides and has been in the selectors' minds since 2018.
Locks: The area of least depth with Scott Barrett injured and Brodie Retallick on holiday, so there could be two added here. Already newcomers Quinten Strange and Tupou Vaa'i have been chosen. Southland lock Manaaki Selby-Rickit could be one; Northland's Tom Robinson (a useful lineout man who can double at blindside; he showed up well against Shannon Frizell in a losing team on Friday night) could be the other.
Loose forwards: The need here might be for another openside, just in case Sam Cane's concussion or other injury sidelines him.
Wellington's Du'Plessis Kirifi is a candidate but hard-nosed Crusaders No 7 Tom Christie might be preferred.
Halfback: You wonder why the fast-passing Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi didn't earn at least a place on the bench in the North-South match, instead of Aaron Smith. Similarly Mitch Drummond and Bryn Hall were missing, though Finlay Christie, who had such a good season with the Blues, came off the bench for the victorious southerners and could be regarded as having the inside running.
First five: Josh Ioane.
Midfield: Maybe two selections here as Braydon Ennor's injury has ruled him out. Ngani Laumape could reappear if recovered enough from his injury; teammate Peter Umaga-Jensen could be the other.
Outside backs: David Havili returned from injury for Tasman on Friday and had a fine match playing at 12. He can fill every position in the backline apart from halfback (and I'm not sure we should be ruling that out...). He was in brilliant form before breaking his thumb and can play in midfield if necessary, which may mean only one new midfielder is selected.
Havili would mean this All Blacks squad would have five who can play fullback (counting Beauden Barrett, brother Jordie, Will Jordan and Damian McKenzie) and the selectors may look to add another winger. Blues and Tasman winger Mark Telea could force his way in while Leicester Fainga'anuku can play centre as well as wing and may be the ideal sub for Ennor.