Adam Thomson is likely to receive an All Blacks end-of-year tour boarding pass, but his hopes of playing Super Rugby next year hinge on a tug-of-war with a Japanese club.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen is expected to name Thomson in his 32-man European squad tomorrow, despite his future earnings to be made in Japan.
But if Hansen does a surprise back-flip and casts aside the versatile loose-forward, the Sunday Star-Times understands Canterbury captain George Whitelock could be the major beneficiary with a recall, three years after his test debut and solitary test against Italy.
The robust and unassuming 26-year-old has impressed in the NPC and is understood to have been under close scrutiny, along with Ali Williams, in last night's premiership final against Auckland in Christchurch.
Thomson, 30, is understood to be close to signing a lucrative Japanese contract. The club want his services immediately after touring Scotland, Italy, Wales and England with the All Blacks, but he is attempting to negotiate a return from Japan to play one final year of Super Rugby next year.
That would require him to be picked from next week's draft, as the messy drawn-out decision on his future meant Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph reached his budget and could not select him in his first-choice 28-protected players.
Blues coach Sir John Kirwan revealed he has a spot left on his roster and could offer Thomson a Super Rugby lifeline, should the Japanese allow him to play some part. Thomson is contracted until the end of this year and New Zealand Rugby Union boss Steve Tew confirmed he had not requested an early release.
The merits of his probable selection in the All Blacks will cause heated debate with the date of his departure expected to be revealed tomorrow.
In this increasingly professional era, Hansen has a history of selecting players who intend to head offshore - Sonny Bill Williams being the prime example.
Picking the best available players is a responsibility Hansen is likely to stand by in defence of Thomson's inclusion. He does not want to repeat mistakes that were made with Isaia Toeava, who was thrust into the All Blacks too early.
With promising Wellington loose-forward Brad Shields injured, and Auckland's Steven Luatua not ready for promotion just yet, the experienced Whitelock is the front-runner if Thomson's 28-test All Blacks career comes to an abrupt end.
Explosive Wellington flanker Ardie Savea, who has been compared to the great Michael Jones, is also understood to have been considered as a replacement, but his future is seen more at openside. He is also too green for the rapid jump. Luatua, Savea and George's younger brother, Luke Whitelock, have performed strongly in the NPC, but exposing them to the pressures of the test arena could damage their development.
The addition of uncapped Wellington hooker Dane Coles, over Hika Elliot, and Tawera Kerr-Barlow's promotion as the third halfback, after both debutants were involved in All Blacks training squads this year, means Hansen will have introduced nine new players since the world cup triumph. He could feel that is enough in his first year in charge.
Coles' call-up reflects a desire to assess his ability at the next level. With three tests in the last two years, Elliot has had a chance to make his mark and will instead feature in Joseph's New Zealand Maori team. All Blacks management have been impressed with Coles' unique athletic qualities and ball-skills and feel his core duties - scrummaging and throwing - have improved.
All 28 players used in the Rugby Championship - Thomson being the possible exception - will be retained, as a reward for their undefeated season that includes nine wins and a draw.
Expect the four additional places to be filled by Taranaki first five-eighths Beauden Barrett, who can also cover fullback, Coles, Kerr-Barlow and the ageing Williams, fitness permitting. Taranaki captain Craig Clarke is thought to have been the next lock in line.
POSSIBLE ALL BLACKS TOURING SQUAD
Forwards: Keven Mealamu, Andrew Hore, Dane Coles, Tony Woodcock, Owen Franks, Ben Franks, Charlie Faumuina, Wyatt Crockett, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Luke Romano, Ali Williams, Richie McCaw (capt), Sam Cane, Kieran Read, Liam Messam, Victor Vito, Adam Thomson/George Whitelock.
Backs: Aaron Smith, Piri Weepu, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett, Ma'a Nonu, Tamati Ellison, Conrad Smith, Ben Smith, Cory Jane, Hosea Gear, Julian Savea, Israel Dagg.
- Sunday Star Times
Who was the best-performed All Blacks forward on the northern tour?