Over the next six weeks, before the heat is turned up in Sydney, Steve Hansen must ponder which five players won't make his Rugby Championship cut.
The All Blacks couldn't have hoped for more in June. Three wins over France, five new caps added to the nine inducted last year and improvements to their evolving game plan. All boxes ticked.
But after assembling a squad of 32 with a hint of development about them, Hansen won't have the same luxury when selecting his next squad of 28. Add returning captain Richie McCaw to the mix, who could be used in tandem with Sam Cane this year, and it is evident five difficult conversations are necessary before meeting the Wallabies.
"It will be tough, because there's going to be some people that are going to miss out who are playing pretty well," Hansen told the Sunday News this week.
When the All Blacks are at home, some of that disappointment will be offset with the inclusion of three players for training purposes. That way Hansen and his management team can continue the grooming of Steven Luatua, Jeremy Thrush, Matt Todd, Charles Piutau, Ben Afeaki and Francis Saili, the only uncapped member.
"Early in the week we are going to have trainees, so we can try to bring the young guys through that system," Hansen revealed. "If they don't make the squad, there are three slots for that. We can use those positions to make sure we get the experience, youth and balance right."
Another challenge for Hansen is how to progress Cane with McCaw back. There has long been speculation McCaw would shift to blindside to prolong his career. He's shown ability in all three loose-forward roles, and it seems playing him and Cane together this year is under consideration.
"It is a possibility," Hansen said of a Read-Cane-McCaw loose trio. "I'm really comfortable about Richie. We've got to be flexible with our thinking. A lot of it will depend on his form. He gives us the ability to play all three loose-forward positions.
"If we're going to consider Sam Cane's growth, then he has to get out on the track. It's no good giving him these three tests and then parking him up. At some point he's going to have to get back out there.
"We have the option of picking him [McCaw] and Sam Cane in the 23 and in the 15. It would be a lot different if he [McCaw] could only play seven, but we know he can play six and eight. If the need be it allows us to grow everybody."
With the three incumbent halfbacks and three hookers understood to be included for the All Blacks' defence of the Rugby Championship, Todd, Thrush, Saili, Piutau and Afeaki may be under most threat.
There will be everything to play for in the final six weeks of Super Rugby, though Hansen has already shown form in the black jersey comes first. Israel Dagg, Ma'a Nonu and Aaron Smith were prime examples against the French. All three players lifted their standards - and they were not alone.
Ben Smith now looks comfortable at test level; Dane Coles grew in stature, Tawera Kerr-Barlow had invaluable experience and it's easy to forget that 12 months ago Luke Romano was a greenhorn.
"Aaron Smith probably had his best test in Christchurch," Hansen said. "He's just at the beginning of his test career. You're never satisfied with where you're at. You always want more. The June series has been good for us, no doubt about that."
- Sunday News
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