It's only about three weeks until the most anticipated selection of Ian Foster's coaching career – and fascinating to see how he and the All Blacks selectors will balance experience and new blood for the three-test series against Ireland.
This squad selection will also offer some clues to the All Blacks' likely game plan for the World Cup – approaching fast if measured by the number of tests left to play to cement combinations.
After a semifinal exit at the last World Cup and a less-than-compelling northern tour, the overwhelming feeling has been that the All Blacks need at least a partial overhaul. In 2019, team management took the unusual step of publicly calling out New Zealand props as behind in ball carrying, mobility and effectiveness outside set pieces.
So what's happened in that area during Super Rugby? Some incumbents (Ofa Tuungafasi, George Bower and Joe Moody until his injury) responded, with Tuungafasi's work at the breakdown and defence standing out. His Blues teammate Alex Hodgman has a fine work rate and may have consolidated his place. Ethan de Groot is a question mark while Nepo Laulala, Angus Ta'avao and Karl Tu'inukuafe haven't come on much, with the latter soon on his way to France and Laulala unable to break into the Blues starting team.
Tyrel Lomax is mobile but was hastily hooked in the first half against the Waratahs as the Hurricanes scrum took a hiding. Such things sometimes irrevocably damage All Black careers.
All of which may see some spots open for new, younger players – like Crusaders tightheads Fletcher Newell and Oli Jager. An even longer shot is Chiefs loosehead Ollie Norris. They are raw but scrum guru Mike Cron has been brought back into the coaching fold, ostensibly to strengthen the scrummaging of those preferred for their mobility, ball play or turnover skills. They may be restricted to a wider squad – though the end of year tour is arguably too late to blood new World Cup talent.
Other positions where selections may offer further game plan leads include the midfield and maybe the loose forwards and halfback.
So far, Foster has appeared cool on the idea of Jordie Barrett at second-five, publicly at least. However, defeats to France and Ireland last year mean new thinking is required. Barrett's height and elusiveness means he is an offload threat – a key component, plus he can bang over vital long-range penalty goals in the intensity of a test match.
If Barrett makes the midfield, there may be World Cup need for a back-up selection in the midfield – which could bring the Highlanders' powerful Thomas Umaga-Jensen into calculations. That would occasion the need to leave out one of a band of experienced international midfielders.
It could also predicate against the arrival of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, though the All Blacks will be dead keen to take him to the World Cup, maybe doubling him up as a winger. He's 28, so those twinkling feet will likely not be around for the next one in 2027.
The coaching manual is clear: decide what style you will play and then select the team to deliver. In the absence of any "silver bullet" becoming obvious during Super Rugby, the game plan could come down to three main elements: turnovers, counter-attack, offloads.
Which means this may be an All Blacks team with an attacking defence philosophy playing an even greater role than previously. The size of northern hemisphere packs and smothering defensive shields have created the need for that shift in focus.
The All Blacks may play territory, intensely employing defensive pressure, turnovers and lightning transition to attack – the latter something at which New Zealand rugby is still the best in the world, a phrase not much in evidence after last year's defeats to Ireland and France.
The attack will also come in for remodelling. At halfback, Folau Fakatava may not be the passing technician Aaron Smith, Brad Weber and Finlay Christie are, but he is a strong defensive halfback, a la TJ Perenara, and a turnover merchant. Those sniping runs from the ruck give the All Blacks a missing weapon – a halfback who must be defended instead of attacking value coming mostly in support play.
In the loose forwards, the Chiefs' Pita Gus Sowakula was playing at No 6 against the Force yesterday instead of his usual No 8 – perhaps a signal to the selectors he can fit into a World Cup squad. Certainly, Ardie Savea aside, the All Blacks do not have a consistently forceful running threat in the loose forwards.
Liam Squire has not yet been totally replaced which makes it even more important that one or more of the Blues trio of Akira Ioane, Hoskins Sotutu and Tom Robinson are on song as powerful defenders but also runners demanding defensive attention.
Foster will not be wanting to show too much of his World Cup hand yet— but there will inevitably be signs as to how much he is prepared to cast off the "conservative" mantle many have bestowed upon him.