By Alex McLeod of RugbyPass.com
It's come about three months later that originally anticipated thanks to the disruption COVID-19 has caused, but new All Blacks coach Ian Foster was finally able to name his first All Blacks squad on Sunday.
The unveiling of the squad was met with much anticipation, with punters eager to see who from the highly successful Super Rugby Aotearoa stood out enough to warrant inclusion for a yet-to-be-confirmed test schedule.
With seven players named in the All Blacks for the first time, and a handful of others who have been omitted or were unlucky to miss out, here are some winners and losers from Foster's 35-man squad.
Arguably the biggest 'winner' from the newly-announced squad. After years of showing a multitude of potential but failing to fully deliver, it seemed his All Blacks prospects were over when ex-head coach Steve Hansen publicly grilled him for being too lazy last year.
However, Ioane has taken that criticism and used it to adjust his mindset and improve his defence, work rate and ability at the breakdown.
All of that culminated in a standout Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign with the Blues, and the 25-year-old has deservedly won his first All Blacks call-up since 2017.
Few would have expected loosehead prop Alex Hodgman to earn All Blacks selection this season, with the former New Zealand and Fiji U20 representative hardly setting the world alight since making his professional debut for Canterbury in 2014.
That changed this year, though, as he shone as part of a vastly improved Blues forward pack through his defensive work ethic and strong scrummaging to win national honours for the first time at the age of 27.
The biggest bolter in Foster's squad, Tupou Vaa'i didn't even have a full-time Super Rugby contract at the beginning of the year.
In fact, he hadn't even made his Chiefs debut until Super Rugby Aotearoa kicked-off in June.
It's taken just under three months for the All Blacks selectors to deem him worthy of a call-up, though.
With Brodie Retallick, Scott Barrett and uncapped prospect Pari Pari Parkinson unavailable, New Zealand's depth at lock has been exposed, but the selection of 20-year-old Vaa'i – who should become the first All Black born in the new millennium – looms as a long-term fix to that predicament.
Like Vaa'i, Crusaders youngster Quinten Strange has undoubtedly benefitted from Barrett's lengthy toe injury and Retallick's sabbatical in Japan.
As such, many projected either him or Parkinson to make the step up from Super Rugby to the test arena, but the latter's season-ending ankle injury has paved the way for Strange to make the national squad, despite being out of action for most of the year through injury.
The youngest full-time Super Rugby player in the country this season, Crusaders rookie Cullen Grace was sublime for the reigning champions in his debut campaign.
The 20-year-old loose forward, who can also cover lock, brought intense physicality on defence and was an assured option at the lineout while playing blindside flanker.
Was ruled out for the latter part of Super Rugby Aotearoa with a broken thumb, but showed more than enough potential to warrant selection.
When former All Blacks captain Kieran Read retired from international rugby last year, one of the biggest questions needing answered in this year's Super Rugby campaign was who will replace him at No. 8 for the All Blacks.
No player answered that question so affirmatively like Hoskins Sotutu did for the resurgent Blues.
The 22-year-old was a behemoth both on attack and defence, so much so that he attracted interest from England boss Eddie Jones and Fiji head coach Vern Cotter.
Foster has landed his man, though, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see Sotutu start alongside Ardie Savea and Sam Cane in the loose forward mix.
After missing out on World Cup selection and being diagnosed with viral meningitis last year, Karl Tu'inukuafe's re-call into the All Blacks environment is admirable.
Take into consideration that he also missed the majority of the Blues' campaign due to an ankle injury, and it shows how much the All Blacks selectors must value his world-class scrummaging. Could emerge as a worthy challenger to Joe Moody for a starting role.
Similarly to Tu'inukuafe, Blues flanker Dalton Papalii missed the cut to go to last year's World Cup after being handed just three minutes of action against the Springboks in Wellington to prove his case.
However, a spellbinding Super Rugby season sees him edge the eye-catching Lachlan Boshier for a berth at openside flanker, and it's hard to argue against the three-test star's inclusion given how powerful he can be on either side of the ball.
Another to be excluded from the World Cup cohort, Asafo Aumua finally looks ready to win his first All Black test cap, three years after playing two non-tests for the national side against the Barbarians and a French XV.
It comes after the Hurricanes hooker impressed with his physicality throughout Super Rugby, to the point where he has leapfrogged Highlanders rake Liam Coltman in the national pecking order.
It's been nearly two years since Tyrel Lomax made his debut for the All Blacks against Japan, but the former Australia U20 representative should add to his sole test cap after standing out in his first season with the Hurricanes.
The tighthead prop moved to Wellington from the Highlanders ahead of the 2020 season, and has made every post a winner through his strong ability at scrum time.
Lomax's try in Saturday's North v South clash also exemplified how damaging of a ball runner he can be.
While Caleb Clarke and Will Jordan are the new faces in the outside back contingent, it's the re-call of Damian McKenzie that should merit plenty of plaudits given how well he has recovered from a serious knee injury.
A ruptured ACL ruled him out of the World Cup, and his nine-month spell on the sidelines left questions over whether he could return to his scintillating best as an electric ball-runner.
Despite the Chiefs' winless run in Super Rugby Aotearoa, McKenzie eased those concerns, with his outstanding showing for the North over the weekend illustrating he is still as difficult as ever to contain for opposition defences.
Perhaps the unluckiest player not to make the 35-man squad, the writing was on the wall for Lachlan Boshier when he was excluded from the North's match day squad to face the South over the weekend.
It's a cruel blow for the uncapped 25-year-old, who was among the most impressive players in a dismal Chiefs outfit throughout Super Rugby Aotearoa.
That hasn't appeared to be enough, though, with Foster and his fellow selectors instead keeping their faith in Dalton Papalii as the back-up openside to Sam Cane and Ardie Savea.
From attending the World Cup to being demoted as a bench player for the Highlanders in the space of less than a year, it was always going to be difficult for Liam Coltman to retain his place in the All Blacks.
His place as third-choice hooker has subsequently been taken by the highly-promising Asafo Aumua, with the 30-year-old now set for a season of Mitre 10 Cup action with Otago.
Work on his lineout throwing seems to be a necessity if he is to win back his place in Foster's squad.
Having been out of action for six months with a leg injury picked up during the Chiefs' first match of the initial Super Rugby competition in January has taken its toll on Angus Ta'avao.
A torn quadricep muscle meant the 14-test prop had just three matches, including the North v South match, to mount a case for retention in the side, but Tyrel Lomax's solid form for the Hurricanes has left Ta'avao on the outer.
He will, however, be a valued addition to Auckland's Mitre 10 Cup squad.
Pari Pari Parkinson
All Blacks incumbents Scott Barrett and Ngani Laumape have both seen injuries eliminate their chances of All Blacks selection. The same can be said for Highlanders lock Pari Pari Parkinson, but the difference is that he isn't an All Black incumbent, as this squad stood as a prime opportunity for him to earn national honours for the first time.
Standing at 2.04m, he is the tallest player in the country and would have been a valued asset at the set piece, as he was in Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Instead, an ankle injury has brought his season to an end, and the chance to establish himself on the international stage has gone begging.
Arguably the second-unluckiest player to miss out on All Blacks selection behind Boshier, Highlanders playmaker Josh Ioane will have to bide his time before he adds to the solitary test cap he earned against Tonga last year.
Stuck behind Richie Mo'unga and Beauden Barrett in the first-five pecking order, few players have a tougher task on their hands in trying to topple their opponents for a place in the squad than Ioane.
Still, his efforts for the Highlanders were top notch once he came back from a quad injury, and it's only a matter of time before he returns to the national set-up.
Luke Jacobson's All Blacks fortunes were probably indicative by the fact he missed out on selection for the North squad last week, but it's fair to say he would have still been in the mix given how highly he was rated by the selectors last year.
With limited game time with the Chiefs due to injury, the 23-year-old was picked to travel to the World Cup with just two tests to his name.
That showed his abrasive style of play was held in high regard, but it seems his ongoing issues with concussion, which also prevented him from playing at all at the World Cup, has stymied his test prospects this year.