A David Havili-Rieko Ioane All Blacks midfield is firming for next week's opening test of the year.
Rookie Chiefs second five-eighth Quinn Tupaea is one step closer to making his test debut off the bench against Tonga at Mt Smart Stadium, too, after the All Blacks already-depleted midfield stocks suffered another hit on Friday.
Crusaders centre Braydon Ennor has been ruled out for five weeks after having appendix surgery, leaving the All Blacks with three fit midfielders and seriously pondering the prospect of using Jordie Barrett as cover.
Ennor complained of a sore stomach for two days prior to undergoing surgery. It's a cruel blow for the 23-year-old who returned during the latter stages of Super Rugby Transtasman after rupturing his ACL during the North versus South match last September.
Ennor is the second Crusaders player to endure acute appendicitis this year after All Blacks wing George Bridge suffered the same issue in May.
Havili, who had his own major health scare when a 20cm infection was removed from his bowel last year, felt for his Crusaders teammate.
"Pretty frustrating for him. He's just come off a knee injury. He's all good now, he's had the surgery and from what I've heard is walking around and straight into recovery mode but it's unlucky for him," Havili said after the All Blacks held an open training session in Papakura watched by students from local south Auckland schools.
"I saw him over the last couple of days and he said he had a sore stomach. There's been a few of them happen down at the Crusaders so me and Bridgey pointed out he might have to go and see the doctor. It's definitely unfortunate for him. He's done so well to get back."
Ennor's absence won't drastically alter the All Blacks' plans – they were always likely to start the season with a Havili-Ioane midfield combination but another late blow does rob them of depth at centre.
With Anton Lienert-Brown out of contention until at least the third test in July against Fiji following minor elbow surgery, and Jack Goodhue already sidelined for the season by his ACL rupture, midfield stocks have never been thinner.
At this stage, there are no plans to call in any additional cover with All Blacks defence coach Scott McLeod confirming Barrett is considered a genuine option at No 12 should further injuries strike.
"He played a lot of his junior rugby there in the under-20s," McLeod said. "He's talked about being an option there as well so if we get thin that's something we could look at.
"There's immense competition in this team and players just want to be on the field. We'll get to see that in the next few days. I'm sure the selectors have it clearly in their mind what the next progressions are."
Havili's rise to prominence in the midfield is remarkable in its own right.
Four years ago he played three tests off the bench as an outside back, only to be cast aside. After impressing from fullback for the Crusaders he was then forced to fight his way back from emergency bowel surgery that threatened to end his career.
"Sitting in the hospital bed I definitely thought this day wasn't going to come but I had to put a lot of hard work into getting back to where I needed to be," Havili said.
"It was a long road, pretty unclear for a lot of it. I had the surgery and there was an unknown about when I would come back. With Covid at the time it gave me a chance to recover and get my strength back; get back into what I love which is playing rugby so I'm extremely grateful to be back in this environment."
Goodhue's absence this season, coupled with Will Jordan's talent at fullback, drove Crusaders coach Scott Robertson to push Havili into second-five where his distribution and kicking skills have quickly promoted him to first-choice No 12 for the All Blacks at present.
"That was something Razor mentioned to me and I ran with it. I thoroughly enjoyed playing in the midfield this year and want to carry that on."
Havili dropped 9kg during his stay in hospital but after regaining that weight he has added a couple of kilos this season to sit around 98kg.
"I'm certainly searching for an opportunity but I want to learn as much as I can. I've been out of the environment a long time now and I'm getting alongside ALB to try cement a position and learn what he's done over a few years.
"I'm not going to scratch myself as a 15 just yet but for now, yeah, full-time midfielder."
Outside the midfield, the All Blacks have other injury concerns with Highlanders blindside Shannon Frizell sitting out training alongside Lienert-Brown due to a high ankle sprain.
Hurricanes captain Ardie Savea also remains in doubt after tweaking the same knee which sidelined him earlier this year.
Frizell and Savea's niggles could open the door to rookie Crusaders blindside Ethan Blackadder, Akira Ioane, Luke Jacobson, Dalton Papalii and Hoskins Sotutu to contest the three loose forward roles next week.