Lingering injury clouds cast a shadow over the All Blacks squad to confront Ireland in the highly anticipated first test of the year at Eden Park next weekend.
Concerns surrounding Aaron Smith's groin and Jordie Barrett's heavily-strapped knee at training this week could yet affect coach Ian Foster's ability to name his preferred starting side, with both considered touch and go for next Saturday's 48,000-strong sold-out Irish assignment.
Barrett is considered more likely to feature but he and Smith will need to pass fitness tests to prove their readiness.
Others carrying injuries, such as Blues duo Caleb Clarke and Rieko Ioane (hamstrings) and All Blacks centurion Sam Whitelock (broken thumb), are expected to receive the all clear.
After naming six rookies in his 36-man squad for the three-test Irish series, Foster's first team reveal of the year carries much intrigue.
Yet the tense backdrop, following successive defeats to Ireland and France on last year's northern tour, paints a high-stakes scene.
With the first three tests of the year at home against Ireland and the next two in South Africa at altitude, the All Blacks face a gruelling start to the season that leaves no margin for error.
Planning for the World Cup – only 15 months away – is, initially at least, firmly on the backburner. Delivering performances in the here and now will be the focus. Expect largely conservative selections, where experience is favoured over the injection of youth, to reflect those demands.
Rookies Pita Gus Sowakula, Aidan Ross, Stephen Perofeta, Leicester Fainga'anuku, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Folau Fakatava may all have to bide their time if incumbents are fit.
There could, however, be five starting changes to the team that lost the final test of last year 40-25 against France in Paris.
Provided Barrett proves his fitness he will start at fullback where he largely shone last year for the All Blacks. In that scenario, despite impressing again this season with the Crusaders from the back, Will Jordan will slide to the right wing where he has performed strongly for the All Blacks. The one notable change to the back three is expected to come on the left wing, with Caleb Clarke preferred over Sevu Reece after a standout season for the Blues.
Clarke missed the last month of the Blues campaign after injuring his hamstring in the penultimate regular season victory against the Brumbies in Canberra. He was close to returning for the Super Rugby final, though, and should have no issues being passed fit for the All Blacks. With his combination of aerial ability, size, speed and power it will be hard to ignore handing Clarke his first test since November 2020.
David Havili's performance in the Crusaders dominant Super Rugby final triumph is expected to give him the first crack at the problematic No 12 jersey.
Chiefs second five-eighth Quinn Tupaea started there against France and was the form prospect through Super Rugby but Havili's tactical nous, specifically his kicking game, is likely to be preferred against Ireland inside Rieko Ioane.
Last year Ioane and Havili combined five times in the All Blacks midfield - Havili starting nine tests at second-five before struggling against the Springboks and Ireland's smothering defensive pressure to lose his spot at the end of the year.
While Richie Mo'unga outplayed Beauden Barrett in the Super Rugby final the latter was hamstrung by the Blues failing to deliver any form of front-foot ball. Barrett holds the mantle as the form playmaker this season, and will therefore assume the No 10 jersey.
Smith's groin issue that ruled him out of the Highlanders quarter-final loss to the Blues three weeks ago will be causing headaches. Without his experienced presence, the All Blacks could be forced to thrust Blues halfback Finlay Christie into the starting role and bring uncapped Highlanders threat Fakatava onto the bench.
Smith is an intense competitor, though, and will be doing everything in his power to start.
The composition of the loose forwards is sure to generate widespread debate. The All Blacks seem set to persevere with the same starting trio – Akira Ioane, Sam Cane, Ardie Savea – that finished last season.
Ioane is under pressure at blindside after being upstaged by the Crusaders forward pack last week but with Cane unlikely to play 80 minutes after coming off the bench for the Chiefs in their semifinal defeat and lacking game time prior to that match, the All Blacks may need Dalton Papalii to provide cover for six and seven.
Experience is likely to be favoured in the second row with Brodie Retallick expected to be joined by Whitelock, who delivered a huge shift in the final after a quiet Super Rugby campaign.
Tupou Vaa'i, the form lock for the Chiefs this season, could be the unluckiest candidate to miss selection with Crusaders captain Scott Barrett likely to be included on the bench.
The front row is possibly the All Blacks' most contestable area. Blues tighthead Nepo Laulala and Crusaders hooker Codie Taylor are favoured to start but Joe Moody's absence through injury creates an opening at loosehead that presents a series of compromises.
The All Blacks are intent on striking the balance between set piece proficiency and mobility – areas they were exposed last year – with their front-row selections. Yet any combination of Karl Tu'inukuafe, George Bower and Ofa Tuungafasi carries potential concerns after the Blues scrum buckled in two of their three home finals matches.
Chiefs hooker Samisoni Taukeiaho's dynamic, damaging ball-carrying presence is a must-have on the bench.
The other point of interest is whether the All Blacks opt for midfield or outside back cover. That will ultimately depend on Jordie Barrett's availability. If he is fit, Barrett could be used as midfield cover which could pave the way to include Reece's ability to break a game open late.
Possible All Blacks team: Jordie Barrett, Will Jordan, Rieko Ioane, David Havili, Caleb Clarke, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith, Ardie Savea, Sam Cane (c), Akira Ioane, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Nepo Laulala, Codie Taylor, George Bower.
Reserves: Karl Tu'inukuafe, Samisoni Taukeiaho, Ofa Tuungafasi, Scott Barrett, Dalton Papalii, Finlay Christie, Richie Mo'unga, Sevu Reece/Jack Goodhue.