Time for All Blacks to send world a message
Changes at No 8 and centre are certain, but the desire to emphatically sweep England and dent the tourist's self-belief could limit tweaks to the All Blacks this week.
Kieran Read's first appearance for the All Blacks this season will force an intense debate about whether Liam Messam or Jerome Kaino gets the nod at blindside flanker.
After being given last week to build his fitness and conditioning after his lengthy recovery from concussion, Read came through training in Hamilton yesterday unscathed and assistant coach Ian Foster said that he was hungry to make a starting return.
"The signs are good. He certainly trained well today," Foster said. "We had to kick him out of a few spots. He was a bit eager. He's raring to go and trained like that today. I can't see him playing 80 [minutes] but we'd love to get him on the park."
Having imposed his physical presence during the last two tests from the boot of the scrum, Kaino is probably more suited to cover Read than Messam, which, ironically, may see him start from the bench.
"If Reado is in the starting line-up we need to make sure we've got good cover for him later on in the game," Foster said. "Both Jerome and Liam have had significant workloads of late. It is tough but only because they're both playing well."
Losing Conrad Smith's calm head in the midfield, coupled with Read's return, could make the selectors opt for a largely settled line-up elsewhere. Improvements were made in Dunedin, but this group has yet to fully meet internal expectations.
"We don't feel we've put the foot on the throat to the point we want to," Foster said. "There's already going to be some change, it's a matter of how much more we want to do."
To take another step and send the English home with plenty to ponder, minimising disruptions may be the favoured approach. On that basis Aaron Cruden could retain the first five-eighth role, despite growing pressure from Beauden Barrett, who is eagerly awaiting his first test start at 10.
"Has Beauden put his hand up? Yes he has," Foster said. "The clear message for him is he needs to keep working on his game. There's not a big shift he needs to make to get a starting position. It's just going to be time."
Smith's broken thumb is expected to pave the way for Malakai Fekitoa to make his first start at centre, in what would be a powerful combination with Ma'a Nonu.
Ryan Crotty is the other option, but to a certain extent the selectors already know what they will get from him. Giving Fekitoa a crack appears to carry more upside.
"He's had some reasonable game-time and he seemed to have a nice calmness about him," Foster said of the breakout Highlanders star. "He did some basic things very well without doing the flash stuff. That's been the key at test level."
Back on his adopted home track, Cruden made it clear that he would be disappointed not to start. The 25-year-old, who yesterday committed to New Zealand rugby through to 2017, agreed that Fekitoa's probable inclusion would require an adjustment from the backline.
"Malakai is a different type of player to Conrad so if he's given the 13 jersey you'll have to work the combinations and do a lot of the little work that doesn't get noticed to find the sweet spots for each other."