Stand-in All Blacks captain Sam Whitelock, influential halfback Aaron Smith and playmaker Richie Mo'unga are unlikely to travel with the All Blacks to Perth on Thursday for the third Bledisloe Cup test next week.
Following his reappointment as All Blacks head coach on Tuesday for a further two years, Ian Foster confirmed the timing of imminent baby arrivals in the Whitelock and Smith households may see both senior players remain in New Zealand when the team departs this week.
The Herald understands Mo'unga is in the same situation and will not board the plane on Thursday.
That will leave the All Blacks needing a new captain for the third Bledisloe on either September 3 or 4, with Whitelock having assumed the role from injured openside Sam Cane and Smith leading the team against Fiji in Dunedin in July. In their absence, Ardie Savea may be considered the frontrunner to captain the All Blacks for the first time.
Hooker Codie Taylor is another candidate while Beauden Barrett captained the All Blacks once previously against the Barbarians.
Foster also confirmed other players – the Herald understands Crusaders lock Scott Barrett is expecting his first child – may return home early from the All Blacks' near four-month tour.
This scenario, however, is heavily dependent on MIQ spots becoming available. At this stage, the All Blacks only have MIQ booked from November 23.
"I'll have to confirm everything but it's unlikely Sammy Whitelock for example and Aaron Smith potentially will be on the plane on Thursday," Foster said. "We'll confirm more of those details as I have them."
The All Blacks will reveal their initial travelling squad on Wednesday. Foster had already flagged his intent to leave injured players, including front-rowers Dane Coles, Joe Moody, Ofa Tuungafasi and midfielder Braydon Ennor, behind but with New Zealand in full lockdown for at least another week in some cases that may have changed too.
"We've had to replan and adapt. In terms of the squad size our goal was always going to be to take a slightly smaller squad over initially and then add to it through the programme. That was principally because we could have players back here playing NPC in the meantime before we brought them over. We're also very cognisant that once they leave our shores they can't comeback," Foster said.
"The last 48 hours we've been focusing on that. The squad will be mid-30s I'd say initially. We've got to look at some variables now. We've got to have players that have had two jabs before they get on a plane so that changes things. They've got to have a negative Covid test so everyone is running around doing that today."
Another major complicating factor facing the All Blacks is the differing quarantine stipulations between Australian states. When the All Blacks arrive in Perth they will enter into a 'soft' quarantine that allows the team to train and play during that two-week period.
Any players, such as Whitelock, Smith, and Mo'unga, who remain in New Zealand and then fly to Queensland for the remainder of the Rugby Championship may be forced into a hard quarantine which involves hotel isolation for two weeks. That situation would take the trio out of contention for the test against the Pumas on the Gold Coast on September 12.
"We've got some family situations around babies that we're trying to juggle and what that means now, particularly with not coming on the plane on Thursday but also when we get to Queensland they've got a hard quarantine for two weeks which is a player alone in his room so that's going to delay some entry for some players.
"We're juggling a little bit but we'll probably release the group that's going on the plane later tomorrow.
"Once we know how long the Queensland quarantine situation is going to be for bringing replacement players over that might determine when we might bring some extra players over."