Nisbett: Tough All Black calls await Hansen
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen doesn't pay too much attention to player form in the early stages of Super Rugby but we are starting to enter the point of the tournament where he'll start to make notes.
The first test against France is now just a couple of months away and Hansen has some tough calls to make based on what we've seen so far.
The first thing that has to be said is that the selectors displayed some real loyalty last year in taking players such as Piri Weepu and Ali Williams on the northern tour. But, with another World Cup looming, how far will that loyalty extend in 2013?
Already there must be question marks about Andrew Hore and Tony Woodcock, two veteran All Blacks who have shown very little for the Highlanders so far this season. Woodcock is an interesting case because, with 96 tests under his belt, it would take an extremely ruthless selector to cut him off just four games short of joining Richie McCaw, Keven Mealamu and Mills Muliaina as All Blacks centurions.
It's a difficult one, but at the moment Woodcock is not playing like an All Black. Neither is Hore, who won't wish to be remembered as finishing his All Blacks career under the cloud of the suspension he received after the Wales game in November.
Keven Mealamu is due back shortly from an extended break but again the selectors will be pondering whether, at 34, he'll be able to keep firing at the top level for another three seasons.
Is it time to think about promoting the likes of Dane Coles, Liam Coltman, James Parsons, Hike Elliott, Quentin McDonald or Ben Funnell as we contemplate the next generation of All Blacks hookers?
Coles, of course, has already tasted international rugby with his four appearances off the bench on the northern tour last year and, despite injury interruptions, has shown good form for the Hurricanes this season.
Elliott is another who has previously worn the black jersey. Despite his patchy start to the Super Rugby season I don't believe that Aaron Smith is under the same sort of pressure as Hore and Woodcock. At 24, he has time on his side and such was the investment in him last year - 13 test matches - it's hard to imagine that he'll be ditched in the short-term.
His form in 2013 may well be a product of the way the Highlanders are travelling and the All Blacks selectors will be keen to see him in a very different environment.
The biggest talking point from last week's round of Super Rugby was the staggering win by the under-strength Crusaders in Cape Town. Most pundits, me included, were happy to write them off with All Blacks Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Kieran Read not available. Then, in the build-up, Israel Dagg pulled the pin and not far into the match they lost Owen Franks.
I can't think of another side that would be able to cope with those losses and yet still win in one of the toughest fortresses in Super Rugby. No player, no matter how brilliant, is irreplaceable, and the Crusaders showed that last weekend and maybe, just maybe, sent a little message to the All Blacks selectors that the new breed is pushing hard for higher honours.
My predictions for this weekend:
Tip of week: The Cheetahs return home with four wins on the bounce and face the Stormers in what will be one hell of a scrap. The TAB has the Cheetahs as outsiders but I'm tipping them to win by 12 or less ($3.20).
The Dominion Post