Five rookies will grab headlines from the first All Blacks squad of the year but Ian Foster has revealed the one position in need of most attention - second five-eighth.
Blues halfback Finlay Christie, Chiefs midfielder Quinn Tupaea, Crusaders prop George Bower, flanker Ethan Blackadder and Highlanders prop Ethan de Groot are the rookies included in the All Blacks extended 36-man squad that will be captained by Sam Whitelock in Sam Cane's absence.
Crusaders loose forward Cullen Grace and Blues prop Alex Hodgman are the notable omissions from last year's squad, while versatile Crusaders wing/centre Leicester Fainga'anuku and Chiefs prop Aidan Ross are the two unluckiest contenders.
Midfield was always going to pose challenges for the All Blacks this year with Jack Goodhue ruled out of the season after an ACL injury and Ngani Laumape departing for France. Anton Lienert-Brown's minor elbow surgery – that rules him out of the first two tests against Tonga and Fiji next month – further exposed the lack of established midfield depth.
The All Blacks have selected five midfielders – two of which in Rieko Ioane and Braydon Ennor are equally capable on the wing. The recalled David Havili, who played the last of his three tests in 2017, prefers to play fullback but has shone at second-five for the Crusaders this year.
Lienert-Brown's initial absence leaves the All Blacks with two main options at second-five that have three tests between them.
Havili and Tupaea, elevated from the New Zealand Maori squad, are the choices to fill the No 12 void for the opening test of the season against Tonga at Mt Smart Stadium on July 3, though head coach Foster hinted Hurricanes fullback Jordie Barrett would be considered to play there. Havili is also carrying a calf complaint that needs to be managed.
"I know people talk about the midfield but it's really been 12 we've been focused heavily on with Ngani's departure and Jack's injury," Foster said.
"Last year we felt we weren't settled on our midfield. It was always an area we were looking closely at. It's been good to see David go in there. He's shown us he can deal with the physical side of the game. We know he's a clever player and he would've learnt a lot from his last episode in the black jersey about the pressure and what it takes.
"It's equally a chance to look at a younger player. Quinn is really good at what he does. He'll have a bit to learn. It's good to be able to back a young player who is confident in what his strengths are. With his running, offloading and ability to create he doesn't lack and confidence.
"We've always got Jordie who tells me he's keen to play 12 so we've got a few options."
One of the concerns with the All Blacks midfield – from outside the squad at least – is a perceived lack of power. With rush defences so prevalent possessing a strong-carrying second-five to alleviate danger is akin to a comfort blanket. Historically, the All Blacks had that option in spades with Ma'a Nonu, Sonny Bill Williams and Laumape all providing ample punch. It's why many wanted Fainga'anuku included.
Foster, though, believes they can supplement the need for power in the midfield from his outside backs.
"It's not a worry but it's certainly going to be something we're going to have to factor in to make sure we've got the ability to take the load off our 10s to make sure our drivers aren't having to carry under that sort of pressure. That's something we've got to work on.
"Ma'a probably started that way and then grew other parts of his game. It's a development stage for us to go in there and try a few different things but we've also got to emphasise the players we've picked have some great strengths in different ways and figure out how we use that."
Foster explained Fainga'anuku partly missed out due to Ioane and Ennor's versatility and the fact all three are left-sided players.
"Clearly Leicester had a strong campaign. When you look at wings you look at Jona Nareki who we think had an outstanding season too. There are some unlucky players who put their hand up and we hope continue to."
The All Blacks gather for their first three-day camp of the year in south Auckland later this week. They plan to hold open training sessions and attempt to feed off the locals as they prepare for the first of potentially 15 tests this year – nine of which will be played at home.
"When you look at south Auckland they've been hit hard by Covid and with the airport workers so it's a great chance for us to link there. Sometimes looking at people who are in a more difficult position than you keeps you grounded."