Who is the best first five-eighth in NZ after Dan Carter?
What Stuart Lancaster would give to chose between Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett. Truth be told, he'd even love to steal the in-form Colin Slade.
Unfortunately for the English coach, a loan is out of the question.
While Lancaster muddles his limited options at first five-eighth for the opening test against the All Blacks at Eden Park next month - having been robbed of top-tier talent by local club final duties - his counterpart is spoilt for choice.
These days Dan Carter's absence causes no anxiety. The centurion has, after all, only played 21 of 40 tests over the past three years, due to a catalogue of injuries.
When he makes a comeback with the Crusaders after his six-month sabbatical and ankle surgery, there are no guarantees his body will last the distance through to next year's World Cup.
The world's premier pivot isn't expected to lose any of his unique qualities - the question is whether his ageing fibres allow him to consistently showcase them without interruption.
"If he can come back injury-free, I'm very confident we'll get a guy that's got a huge amount of desire to play well," All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said.
"He'll work hard and his preparation needs to be good, and then we'll see a great player back. It just depends whether his body allows him to do that."
Fear not, contingency plans are well advanced.
Against England it will be the Cruden and Barrett show. Slade's versatility could see him make the final squad, which gets trimmed by four players next week, but the Chiefs' and Hurricanes' playmakers will duke it out for the starting 10 jersey.
"There's a possibility we'll carry three because the injury to Charles Piutau has left us room to either take another outside back or third five-eighth," Hansen said.
"Both Barrett and Slade can play multiple positions."
Limited game-time hasn't diminished faith in Cruden's abilities to slot straight back into the All Blacks fold.
Right now he is the incumbent, having slotted that sideline conversion in the tense Dublin finale last year to seal the perfect season with his second attempt - composure personified.
His return from a broken thumb via the bench against the Hurricanes last night was timely, though he'll have only one more match for the Chiefs before the first test, and is likely to lack fitness.
He has, of course, faced greater challenges outside rugby by overcoming testicular cancer.
"He's a pretty fit young man who has got a great head for the game and understands what he's got to do," Hansen said.
"We saw him win a world under-20 title coming off very limited preparation. He's the type of player that can play without too much pressure or the need for game time.
"He's now a player that's started to run the cutter and perform things that you want world-class five-eighths to do."
Effectively third-choice, Barrett, too, is presenting an increasingly compelling case. His option-taking, tactical judgment and goalkicking have dramatically improved this season, while his running game remains a lethal asset.
Defensive concerns have probably prevented him from wearing the 10 jersey for the All Blacks before now. He's started two of 16 tests at fullback against Italy and Japan, otherwise performing many super sub cameos. That may change in June, though.
"He's had a good season and is growing all the time," Hansen said.
"His opportunity to start a test [at 10] is getting closer and closer."
Of the trio, Hansen regards Slade as the best defender.
"Colin is also playing particularly well at the moment," he said.
"All three five-eighths we've got are in good form. If all three are available I'll be very confident we'll get a very good starting 10."
Depth in the role is brimming. Under Tony Brown's guidance, Lima Sopoaga doesn't let one-off errors ruin his game any more. And he's now thriving in the rejuvenated Highlanders, where Hayden Parker is also developing head-turning attributes.
- Sunday Star Times
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