Sam Cane in pole position for McCaw's jersey
Sam Cane appears destined to inherit the All Blacks No 7 jersey but what happens if he gets injured?
All Blacks captain Richie McCaw's sabbatical has created a log-jam of contenders for his openside flanker spot ahead of next month's series against France and Cane, who won his first test cap against Ireland last year, is tipped to fill the void.
Former All Blacks selector Peter Thorburn would be surprised if All Blacks coach Steve Hansen snubbed Cane after blooding him last year.
''Cane is the next best prospect,'' Thorburn stated. ''The No 7's role has changed. It is now also a linking, continuity and ball-carrying role. Cane covers most of those areas pretty well and has good anticipation.''
The next question is what Hansen will do if Cane, a slow-burner for the Chiefs after sharing the No 7 role with Tanerau Latimer this season, breaks down. With Adam Thomson off to Japan, the chasing pack includes Matt Todd (Crusaders), Luke Braid (Blues), Karl Lowe (Hurricanes), John Hardie (Highlanders) and Latimer. The Hurricanes' promising Ardie Savea is still too inexperienced.
Thorburn likes what he sees in Todd but questions his ability to shine if his pack struggles.
''Matt Todd does those things well too (linking and carrying the ball) but there's just something, to me, that he is not quite there yet. He's gutsy but I think when the Crusaders are not dominating he can disappear a little bit.''
Todd has struggled to gain any traction with Hansen since he took over as All Blacks boss last year. When McCaw battled his foot injury in the latter stages of the 2011 World Cup, Todd was on standby. But he has since fallen from favour. Hansen didn't name him in his 35-man ''wider training group'' camp ahead of last year's series with Ireland and has continued to overlook him.
Braid's recent performances for the Blues have also captured Thorburn's attention but he wonders if he has the X-factor required for test level.
''It is only in the last two games that I have thought he has played a really good No 7's role.''
McCaw is due back for the Rugby Championship but Thorburn said there could be some anxiety if he and Cane were injured ahead of the matches against the Springboks and Wallabies.
''When you think about it, there is not a lot of experience or depth there... Matt Todd may be given a chance but they seem to be reluctant to take him, don't they?''
Hansen is expected to name a number of promising contenders when he picks around 35 players for his ''wider training group" camps in Mt Maunganui on May 19 and 26.
Last year he included Super Rugby rookie Luke Whitelock, who had hardly been sighted for the Crusaders. Cane, Beauden Barrett, Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Brodie Retallick were also surprise inclusions and later earned test caps.
Last week Todd said he was not discouraged about the lack of communication from Hansen. If Hansen elects to select Cane as his only specialist No 7 against France he will be forced to use Liam Messam, Kieran Read or Liam Messam as cover if he gets injured.