Major second test injury dilemma for All Blacks
No Tony Woodcock. No Dan Carter. Now, almost certainly, no Ma'a Nonu and Jerome Kaino. The All Blacks face possibly their greatest test of depth under Steve Hansen this weekend.
With on-going concerns about long-term options behind hooker Dane Coles, and Steven Luatua being used to cover lock, fringe stocks are being frayed.
In previous tests Hansen has coped well with adversity and the absence of key figures, but any side would struggle to fill the void of four world class players.
The Wallabies realise they blew a gift chance at victory in Sydney last Saturday and the Eden Park burial ground presents a much greater test of character. They will, however, believe areas such as the breakdown and midfield are more exposed than before.
Conrad Smith's return after the birth of his first son will counterbalance the loss of Nonu. His valuable guidance cannot be underestimated. But, just as they were after the poor first test win over England in June, the All Blacks have also been challenged to lift their basic skills, decision-making and attack.
"We missed Conrad but it's a pretty poor excuse if we blame his absence for making bad decisions," assistant coach Ian Foster said yesterday.
Ryan Crotty's experience at second five-eighth is expected to be preferred over Malakai Fekitoa's explosiveness and Liam Messam looms as Kaino's logical replacement.
While he has been solid in seven tests as a substitute, Crotty's probable promotion throws up a potential lack of punch in the midfield. His combination with Smith may offer a case of sameness, rather than the complementary power and guile elements which proved so successful.
"The 12 side for Malakai is more of a longer-term prospect," Foster said. "Clearly he is designated to cover 12 when he's on the bench. He's looking more comfortable there.
"We've got to weigh that up versus Ryan coming in and carrying on what he did.
"You look at the combination hard and the more you can get people to complement each other the better. Ma'a and Conrad for so long have offered that. We've also seen Ma'a's skillset grow. He's become more of a distributor.
"We don't just want someone to hit the ball up hard. They've got to be a thinking player; they've got to be able to pass, kick and assess situations.
"Our decision-making wasn't that good last week and it's going to be a real focus for us and our midfield this week."
Physicality forms a major part of the All Blacks' platform. It is here they will need to work overtime. Often they launch from a midfield Nonu crash, or Kaino charge just wide of the ruck congestion. Exploiting holes from second-phase in a defensive line is much easier with that go-forward.
"It's a couple of big losses but we've got faith with the guys going in there," Foster said.
Messam featured in nine of last year's 14 tests before falling behind Kaino this year. After a month-long conditioning window he should be primed for an authoritative performance in the quest to win back his starting role.
The weather and officiating didn't help proceedings in the dour Sydney draw, but pressure has also been placed on Aaron Cruden to take greater accountability for driving the team.
"As a first-five that's a responsibility you are pretty keen to make amends, especially in that area," Cruden said. "We've had a really honest review process over the last few days and felt we were a bit sluggish there."
Cruden's ability to fulfil those duties will be helped dramatically if Crotty and Messam rise to the occasion.