The All Blacks squad will be named at 11am today - and it will feature several new faces, including some of Super Rugby Aotearoa's breakthrough young talents. Liam Napier reports.
Ian Foster's new All Blacks era is expected to usher in a host of rookies and welcome the resurgence of several former test prospects.
Standout Blues No 8 Hoskins Sotutu and dynamic wing Caleb Clarke, Crusaders outside back Will Jordan and two rookie locks, along with the recall of Hurricanes hooker Asafo Aumua and Blues loose forward Akira Ioane, could be among the main talking points when Foster unveils his first squad this morning.
Despite ongoing uncertainty over when and where the All Blacks will play this year, Foster may name an extended squad of between 35 and 38 players which leaves plenty of room to groom prospects and, ideally, have cover three deep in most positions.
This year's test schedule, including the Rugby Championship's fate, is not expected to be finalised until next week.
The Herald understands Foster's tenure will begin with two Bledisloe Cup matches against Dave Rennie's Wallabies next month, though where those tests will take place remains uncertain. If the All Blacks open their campaign in Australia they may need additional cover outside their 35-man squad to safeguard against the challenges of replacing injured players when quarantine is required.
Selecting locks was always going to pose the major headache for Foster and fellow selectors John Plumtree and Grant Fox. Sam Whitelock and Patrick Tuipulotu are certainties but with Brodie Retallick absent on sabbatical and Scott Barrett working his way back to fitness, Foster needs to promote two test rookies.
While Crusaders lock Quinten Strange was unavailable for the North against South match because of a sternum injury, he may not be out of the frame for a potential All Blacks call-up.
Highlanders and Tasman lock Pari Pari Parkinson, considered a leading contender, is out with season-ending ankle surgery.
Crusaders lock Mitchell Dunshea and 20-year-old Chiefs prospect Tupou Vaa'i – the 1.98m, 118kg Wesley College product would be a serious bolter if included – will also contest the two vacant locking roles.
In the hotly-debated outside backs, the All Blacks may have room to select all their in-form talent, including breakout stars Clarke and Jordan. Both produced irresistible form during Super Rugby Aotearoa, with Jordan comfortable on the wing and at fullback while Clarke's size and power adds a different dimension to options on the edge.
The All Blacks face a decision around their first five-eighth options. Richie Mo'unga and Beauden Barrett will share the 10 jersey but the selectors may opt to include Damian McKenzie as floating back three and No 10 cover. That would leave talented playmaker Josh Ioane, who had a significant impact on the Highlanders after returning from injury late in their campaign, to continue his development in the Mitre 10 Cup with Otago, rather than sitting in the stands.
Sotutu's speed off the back off the scrum, combined with his skill out of hand and off the boot, attracted global interest, including from the respective coaches of England and Fiji, before a knee injury sidelined him for the back end of the Blues campaign.
Now fit again, Sotutu is expected to be included in the stacked loose forwards, which may feature Akira Ioane's rewarding recall.
Ioane is yet to make his test debut for the All Blacks, playing one match against the French XV in Lyon in 2017 before slipping well down the pecking order. His consistent defensive and work rate efforts for the Blues this season, and his improve mental outlook, elevated him back into the frame. This was reflected in his starting role at blindside flanker for the North team.
Shannon Frizell's commanding physical presence for the Highlanders this season cannot be ignored, either, but if the All Blacks opt to select six loose forwards to ensure cover across all three roles, they could include three-test Blues flanker Dalton Papalii and Ioane alongside captain Sam Cane and Ardie Savea.
Such loose forward depth is reflected by the absence of Chiefs duo Luke Jacobson and Lachlan Boshier from the North squad.
Three years on from his two appearances for the All Blacks as a 20-year-old, Hurricanes hooker Aumua has launched his imposing presence back into contention after a superb Super Rugby season. Aumua's selection to start for the North side is a nod to his dynamic abilities around the park and a maturing professional attitude.
Dane Coles' niggly calf complaint may yet force the All Blacks to carry four hookers but Aumua is expected to be third choice.
Ngani Laumape's fractured forearm removed the difficult midfield conundrum with all four contenders – Jack Goodhue, Anton Lienert-Brown, Rieko Ioane and one-test Crusaders centre Braydon Ennor – thought to be locked in, though Ennor will be sweating on the diagnosis of his knee after twisting it while tackling opposite Rieko Ioane and hobbling off 13 minutes into the North v South clash last night.
Rieko Ioane's selection in the midfield, after impressing at centre for the Blues, signals where his long-term future lies after scoring 24 tries in 29 tests largely on the wing.
The front-row largely picks itself, with Blues prop Karl Tu'inukuafe's resurgence expected to earn him a recall after missing last year's World Cup squad following a viral meningitis illness.
Possible All Blacks squad
Nepo Laulala, Joe Moody, Karl Tu'inukuafe, Tyrel Lomax, Ofa Tuungafasi, Angus Ta'avao, Dane Coles, Codie Taylor, Asafo Aumua, Patrick Tuipulotu, Sam Whitelock, Tupou Vaa'i/Mitchell Dunshea, Quinten Strange, Sam Cane, Ardie Savea, Hoskins Sotutu, Akira Ioane, Dalton Papalii, Shannon Frizell.
Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara, Brad Weber, Richie Mo'unga, Beauden Barrett, Jack Goodhue, Anton Lienert-Brown, Rieko Ioane, Braydon Ennor, Jordie Barrett, Sevu Reece, Caleb Clarke, George Bridge, Will Jordan, Damian McKenzie.
Follow the All Blacks squad naming live on nzherald.co.nz and Newstalk ZB from 11am.