Another All Blacks midfield option has been scratched with confirmation that Alapati Leiua has chosen to throw his lot in with Samoa.
The 24-year-old Hurricane's decision coincides with the naming today of All Blacks coach Steve Hansen's wider training group.
It will be the first glimpse of Hansen's thinking and it will not surprise if he injects new blood in a similar fashion to his first year at the helm.
Young Blues Steven Luatua, Frank Halai and Charles Piutau are strong chances, while Hurricanes lock Jeremy Thrush may have battered down the door.
But it is the midfield that has created the most conjecture.
It's understood Leiua would have been among the 35-odd players named to attend the first of two camps at Mt Maunganui next week.
Which highlights what must now be a frustrating search for the All Blacks selectors as they try to map out a future test midfield.
At centre, Conrad Smith is expected to announce today he will take at least another week off to recover from the concussion he suffered in Pretoria.
He cannot yet be inked as a certainty for the three tests against France.
It's understood Leiua had been discussed at high levels as a possible successor, but Ben Smith and Rene Ranger are now the obvious men to be given a shot. They are, respectively, safe and risky punts worth making.
Ma'a Nonu remain the obvious test second five eighth, but likewise resides in an otherwise bare cupboard.
Tamati Ellison is a class act. But he will not have won favour with the All Blacks selectors in deciding to chase the yen, again. It would not entirely surprise if he was now cut adrift.
Francis Saili is an exciting prospect with nice feet, soft hands and a courageous streak. The All Blacks coaches should back themselves to teach him to read defences. It was not a strong suit for Nonu in his early days, but he became world class.
The unknown is who won't attend the camps. Does it make sense for Hansen to invite his veterans?
Does he have anything more to learn about Andrew Hore, who will be away in South Africa, or Blues captain Ali Williams?
He will presumably use both against France regardless, but there is rationale should he leave both out of his first group.
Williams has a duty to his young Blues side and may prefer to prepare them for their match against the Brumbies, while Thrush deserves a taste at the next level.
Thrush is a highly regarded scrummager and his efforts against the Force and Bulls in recent weeks were reminders why he was once the IRB's junior player of the year.
Dane Coles is sure to return at hooker, and Hansen must bring in some new blood for the aging Hore and Keven Mealamu.
The outside backs are less of a mystery. Assuming Chiefs magician Tim Nanai-Williams is scratched through injury, Halai and Piutau deserve closer inspection.
Blues blindside Luatua has played himself to the point of a certainty, but it will be interesting to see if Crusaders openside Matt Todd is given a chance, or Hurricanes teenager Ardie Savea brought into the fold.
Possible 35-man wider training squad: Hookers: Dane Coles, Liam Coltman, Keven Mealamu. Props: Ben Afeaki, Owen Franks, Ben Franks, Wyatt Crockett, Tony Woodcock. Locks: Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano, Jeremy Thrush. Loose forwards: Kieran Read, Sam Cane, Liam Messam, Matt Todd/Ardie Savea, Victor Vito, Brad Shields, Steven Luatua. Halfbacks: Piri Weepu, TJ Perenara, Aaron Smith, Tawera Kerr-Barlow. First five-eighths: Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett. Midfield: Ma'a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Rene Ranger, Francis Saili. Outside backs: Julian Savea, Frank Halai, Hosea Gear, Charles Piutau, Israel Dagg, Ben Smith.
- The Dominion Post
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