By Alex McLeod of RugbyPass.com
After five rounds of action, Super Rugby Aotearoa has reached the halfway point of its 10-week duration.
Whether it's been the continued dominance of the Crusaders, the resurgence of the Blues, the plight of the Chiefs, the 'comebacks' of Dan Carter and Nehe Milner-Skudder or the rise of young players nationwide, the Kiwi league has provided a plethora of talking points in the opening month and a bit.
The confirmation of the highly-anticipated North vs South clash in Auckland next month has also brought with it plenty of fanfare as one of New Zealand's oldest fixtures reclaims its place on the national sporting calendar.
Ultimately, though, the make-up of Ian Foster's first All Blacks squad remains integrated as one of the focal points of Super Rugby Aotearoa.
The competition has and will continue to be effectively a series of All Blacks trials for Foster and his assistants, as New Zealand's best go head-to-head for a spot in both the North vs South game and the national side.
That inter-island clash could go some way to finalising the last few places in Foster's squad, but there are more than a few men who have already stated their cases for international selection.
No player can pull together a string of decent performances without their name being mentioned as a potential All Blacks candidate – just ask the likes of Will Jordan, Caleb Clarke and Hoskins Sotutu.
Whether the All Blacks play at all this year while the Covid-19 pandemic rages on remains to be seen, but hopes are high for a four-test Bledisloe Cup series against the Wallabies, while SANZAAR refuse to rule out the Rugby Championship from taking place.
Regardless, if either one of those events go ahead, now seems a fair time to assess who stands where in the national pecking order with each franchise across the board having now played each other once.
Beginning up front, perhaps one of the most noticeable facets of the Blues' remarkable challenge for the Super Rugby Aotearoa crown has been their forward pack's vastly improved tenacity and efficiency on defence.
All members from No. 1 to No. 8 have posted big tackle counts on their stat sheets since they embarked on their campaign against the Hurricanes last month.
An overwhelming commitment to fronting up on the opposite side of the ball has led Leon MacDonald's side to concede just 82 points this season, meaning they boast the second-tightest defence in the league behind the Crusaders.
While the Blues' loose forwards and second rowers have been lauding most of the plaudits since their return from the COVID-19 lockdown, the defensive effort made by the franchise's two starting props have largely gone unnoticed.
In addition to leading the charge for the second-best scrum success rate in the competition (96 percent), Alex Hodgman and Ofa Tu'ungafasi's off the ball work rate has seemingly been overshadowed by the performances of their standout teammates.
Hodgman, in particular, has been impressive with his defensive output, sitting sixth-equal with Sotutu for most tackles (42).
Only Dalton Papalii (48) has posted better figures for the Auckland side, while no other front rower registers in Super Rugby Aotearoa's top 10 tackle count.
Given that he has led the charge in a defensive mindset shift that has rocketed the Blues from cellar-dwellers to genuine title threats, it's fair to say, then, that loosehead prop Hodgman could be a dark horse contender for a place in the All Blacks set-up.
With last year's World Cup attendee Atu Moli out for the season after undergoing hip surgery, an opening could arise for Hodgman to join established All Blacks Tu'ungafasi, Joe Moody and Nepo Laulala in the New Zealand squad.
One more prop should be added to that contingent, and that spot could come down to a straight shootout between Angus Ta'avao and Karl Tu'inukuafe.
Injuries have restricted both players from accruing much playing time at all this year, but they are the next two most experienced props behind Tu'ungafasi, Moody and Laulala, which might be a valued asset in a squad that is likely to feature plenty of new faces in the forward pack.
Tu'inukuafe made his return from an ankle injury for the Blues in Christchurch on Saturday, while Ta'avao told Stuff last month that he was aiming to come back from a nasty leg injury for the Chiefs this weekend against the Highlanders.
How both players fare over the coming weeks will be keenly followed by Foster, who will be eager to fill the hole left by Moli's injury-enforced absence and Owen Franks' defection to Northampton Saints.
It's relatively more straightforward in the middle of the front row, where Codie Taylor and Dane Coles continue to reign supreme in New Zealand's hooker stocks.
It will be the third-choice rake that provides the most intrigue, though.
Highlanders veteran Liam Coltman was chosen to fill that role at the World Cup, but his wayward lineout throwing has become an ever-present issue for Aaron Mauger's side, costing him his place in the starting lineup.
Instead, co-captain Ash Dixon has been a constant presence in the No. 2 jersey for the Dunedin club, leading his side well to become one of the more impressive hookers in the league.
However, at the age of 31, it might be too late for Dixon to forge an international career with the All Blacks, especially with back-up Hurricanes rake Asafo Aumua reminding everyone of his explosive ability on the weekend.
Finally beginning to find his feet at Super Rugby level, the ball-carrying prowess and much more accurate lineout throwing of Aumua could win him a recall into the All Blacks ahead of Coltman.
Arguably one of the biggest holes to plug in Foster's squad is in the second row, a position that Crusaders star Sam Whitelock and Blues skipper Patrick Tuipulotu are streets ahead of anyone else in.
Should he recover from a toe injury that has ruled him out of the Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign, Crusaders captain Scott Barrett would undoubtedly join that duo, but a return date for the 36-test All Black remains unclear.
His absence may require the long-awaited promotion of Highlanders behemoth Pari Pari Parkinson into the international fore.
Standing at 2.04m and 119kg, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in New Zealand with a bigger frame than the 23-year-old, and it's for that reason that there has been anticipation for a few seasons surrounding his future as a potential All Black.
Parkinson has come of age this year, though, as he's given the Highlanders a safe option at the lineout while upping the tempo on attack as he continues to learn how to best utilise his massive body on the field.
Were it not for a broken leg, Parkinson may well have targeted his first cap alongside franchise teammate Josh Dickson, who stood as the best lineout operator in the country before his season ended against the Crusaders.
In the loose forwards, All Blacks captain Sam Cane and Ardie Savea are lock-in, non-negotiable selections and are certainties to start for the national side.
Where they start is up for debate, though, especially when taking into consideration the form of Blues standout Hoskins Sotutu and Highlanders enforcer Shannon Frizell.
Whether it's been their powerhouse ability on attack, their immense work rate off the ball or their added dimension as lineout options, the duo have been possibly the best loose forwards in this competition.
As it stands, it would be difficult to leave either of them out of an All Blacks squad, but the same could be said of numerous other candidates.
Blues back rower Dalton Papalii has come on in leaps and bounds this season to surpass the injury-prone Luke Jacobson in the pecking order, as has Akira Ioane, who has to be commended for amending the deficiencies that kept him out of national teams in the past.
Like Barrett, a return date for injured Crusaders youngster Cullen Grace is unclear, otherwise he would have been a big challenger for international honours.
Elsewhere, Highlanders No. 8 Marino Mikaele-Tu'u, Hurricanes tearaway Du'Plessis Kirifi and Crusaders pilferer Tom Christie continue to make their presence felt, while a crackdown on the officiating of the breakdown has been unkind to Chiefs flanker Lachlan Boshier.
The All Blacks halfbacks pick themselves, with Aaron Smith well clear of the chasing pack that is headed by TJ Perenara.
Despite the Chiefs' downward spiral in the domestic competition, Brad Weber is at short odds to retain his place as the third-choice No. 9, although the likes of Bryn Hall, Mitchell Drummond and Sam Nock aren't likely to go down without a fight.
It's a similar situation at first-five, with Crusaders pivot Richie Mo'unga establishing himself as the best No. 10 in the country after outshining Beauden Barrett – who was admittedly playing at fullback – three days ago.
Those two will spearhead the All Blacks on the playmaking front, but whether anyone will accompany them is up for debate.
The leading contender to do so is one-cap Highlanders first-five Josh Ioane, but he is yet to feature in the competition after being hampered by groin and quad niggles.
Mitch Hunt has stood up admirably in his place, but to say those two or any other first-five in the country – including the in-form Otere Black – are worthy of an All Blacks call-up would be a big statement to make.
Rieko Ioane's successful shift from the wing to the midfield gives Foster another aspect to consider when combing through his options to fill the No. 12 and No. 13 jerseys.
The 23-year-old has been a sensation at centre for the Blues as his attacking exploits haven't diminished, while it also appears he has eased concerns regarding his defensive capabilities further inside the backline.
Factor in the dead-set inclusions of Jack Goodhue and Anton Lienert-Brown, along with the tantalising Braydon Ennor, and it could be a second year of bad luck for Ngani Laumape, whose one-dimensional approach to the game could cost him a national recall.
Still, though, the former NRL wing's ability to bowl over defenders and bust through defensive lines – as was seen against the Highlanders on Sunday – can't be overlooked, and could even act as a point of difference against the other contenders.
Even with Ioane's move into the midfield, the make-up of the outside backs will probably be the most difficult area of the squad to narrow down, with so many options at Foster's disposal.
The scenario effectively boils down to dropping two of the following players: George Bridge, Sevu Reece, Jordie Barrett, Damian McKenzie, Will Jordan, David Havili, Caleb Clarke and Mark Telea.
All eight have played starring roles for their respective sides this year, but it's likely no more than six players will be picked in this position.
Therefore, two of those names have to go, and with it being highly probable Barrett, McKenzie, Reece and Bridge will maintain their places in the All Blacks squad, it leaves Jordan, Havili, Clarke and Telea to duke it out for two – or maybe even one – spot.
Based on form alone, it would be shock of outrageous proportions to see Jordan excluded given how influential he has been for the Crusaders.
That could spell the end of Havili's selection chances given the presence of four other players – the Barrett brothers, McKenzie and Jordan – who can cover fullback.
If it then came down to a straight shootout between Clarke and Telea, the safe money would have to be on the former given his size, speed, defensive awareness and aerial power.
That's not to say Telea's form doesn't warrant consideration, but 21-year-old Clarke's more well-rounded game and boundless potential would probably be enough to win him the nod.
With all this in mind, though, it is still early days in Super Rugby Aotearoa as the second half of the campaign begins to kick-off, and with the North vs South clash to follow suit, there is still plenty of time for Foster to be swayed.
Possible 33-man All Blacks squad based on first half of Super Rugby Aotearoa
Props: Alex Hodgman, Nepo Laulala, Joe Moody, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Angus Ta'avao/Karl Tu'inukuafe
Hookers: Asafo Aumua, Dane Coles, Codie Taylor
Locks: Scott Barrett*, Pari Pari Parkinson, Patrick Tuipulotu, Sam Whitelock
Loose Forwards: Sam Cane (c), Shannon Frizell, Akira Ioane, Dalton Papalii, Ardie Savea, Hoskins Sotutu
Halfbacks: TJ Perenara, Aaron Smith, Brad Weber
First-Fives: Beauden Barrett, Richie Mo'unga
Midfielders: Braydon Ennor, Jack Goodhue, Rieko Ioane, Anton Lienert-Brown
Outside Backs: Jordie Barrett, George Bridge, Caleb Clarke, Will Jordan, Damian McKenzie, Sevu Reece
* – dependant of if he has recovered from injury by the time a squad is selected