Selecting the New Zealand Under 20s continues to be a crucial process, and new assistant coach Tana Umaga admits some good quality players miss out.
But one man's injury is another man's opportunity as the Under 20s prepare for tomorrow's Oceania Junior Championship opener against Japan on the Gold Coast at Bond University. That is the case for Wellington halfback Luke Campbell, who played out of his skin in the national Under 19 tournament last October in Taupo, but was unlucky to miss the original cut for this squad. Concussion to 2013 NZ Schools halfback Harrison Levien of Waikato has seen Campbell win a call-up to act as back-up to Taranaki's Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi.
"That's one of the toughest parts of the job, because there's some quality left. It's pleasing, though, that the depth of New Zealand rugby is still strong at this level, and we have to continue fostering that," says Umaga.
He will be charged with organising the defensive systems as well as having the backs strong and technically sound over the ball at the breakdown, something at which he excelled in his storied, 74-test playing career. But although admitting it is helpful having a coaching team - alongside head coach Scott Robertson and attack coach Leon MacDonald, both of whom were part of the 2014 brains trust - that can call on no less than 153 All Blacks' caps worth of experience, Umaga believes that will not be central to drawing the best out of these young men.
"It's also helpful us all being ITM Cup coaches. A lot of these guys will come through to ITM Cup. It's good that we, as ITM coaches, know what coaches at the next level - Super Rugby - are looking for. What we've done in the past as players has gone. The game's changed so quickly."
What has not changed is that the Under 20s are a viable stepping stone to higher honours, be it Super Rugby or All Blacks. Tana Umaga played for the Under 20s' equivalent in 1994, the New Zealand Colts, which produced 12 All Blacks. From Robertson's 1995 side came 15 All Blacks, and in 1997, Leon MacDonald's team spawned 12 who wore the black jersey.
There is still hope that, come time to travel in late May to Italy for June's Junior World Championship, New Zealand will have all their best available players, barring Damian McKenzie, who will stay with the Chiefs and centre Rieko Ioane, who has opted to stick with the New Zealand Sevens programme for this year at least.
Umaga was hopeful that others on Super Rugby duty would be released in time for the big dance, though too late for this three-match, week-long Oceania tournament.
Crusaders threequarter Nathaniel Apa and the Blues trio of Tevita Li, Akira Ioane and Blake Gibson should be released by their franchises. Apa is a fringe player at best and the Blues are out of playoffs contention so should be looking to help the Under 20s win the world title, which they have not achieved since 2011.
"The Super franchises have first pick of the players," says Umaga. You'd love to have all your best players, but that's out of our control. We're happy with the calibre of outside backs at the moment," says Umaga.
They include Chiefs centre Anton Lienert-Brown, who captained the side on occasion in 2014 and wing/midfielder Vince Aso, who must be jumping out of his skin, having seen no game time for the Hurricanes, and reliant on a diet of franchise development or club rugby.
"He's in the same boat as other Hurricanes in our squad, (hooker) Leni Apisai and (lock) Geoff Cridge. But they know about expectations and will bring infectious enthusiasm. Vice looks in top nick," says Umaga of a player who has battled hamstring issues in the past.
You would back Umaga to help wing Tevita Li rediscover his mojo and consistency.
"Tevita's a matchwinner. When he gets back, we hope he's in a good physical state and frame of mind."
Umaga explained that Rieko Ioane, who was at the November training camp, made the call, after consultation with Sir Gordon Tietjens, to hitch his wagon to sevens. He is eligible again in 2016 for the Under 20s, though may be focused on an Olympic medal by then, as well as having a Super Rugby contract with the Blues.
As expected in a 15-strong backs division, there is a heap of versatility, and in fullback/wing George Bridge of Canterbury, fullback/first five Mitch Hunt of Auckland, first five/fullback Fletcher Smith of Otago (a 2014 NZ Universities rep) and Manawatu and Hurricanes No 10 Otere Black they have several goalkicking options.
Bridge and Hunt, in particular, played strongly at the Under 19 tournament, and Umaga endorses the value of this event in showcasing talent that might not have shown out in the schools system.
Umaga enjoys coaching this group, as they are like sponges. The trick, however, is not overloading them with too much information, as they came from different teams.
"They are very studious. They've come through academies and know what's required in taking on information. We have to teach them something new, but without chucking too much at them."
As flagged in the Herald last week, Waikato prop Atu Moli, one of several survivors from the ultimately disappointing 2014 campaign, will wear the captaincy armband.
All matches will be live streamed on www.rugby.com.au. New Zealand v Japan kicks off at 3pm (NZT) on Friday.