OPINION: Last year we had Ben Smith and Steven Luatua. But so far this Super Rugby season I'm not sure there's one player who has put his hand up and demanded to be promoted into the All Blacks.
Who's played better than an incumbent? Who from outside the established core has said "I want the All Black jersey"? Names don't exactly spring to mind.
Going into June it's going to be interesting to see who plays, because if everyone's fit the selectors will have plenty of options. But from what we've seen so far, there shouldn't be too many surprises.
Some questions from 2013 so far haven't been answered in 2014. Who is the next-best hooker? The next-best centre? They are probably the two biggest concerns.
I'm not sure anyone outside the incumbents in those two positions has played well enough to stand above the rest. If you want to be part of that first All Blacks squad you'd better start performing now if you're not an incumbent.
We've probably seen enough out of Jerome Kaino to say his name is well and truly in the mix.
But a lot of fringe All Blacks from last year would have been put on notice. They're guys who have had some exposure and now have the next month to prove they deserve to be part of the training squads in May.
At the moment you're entitled to ask: have they done enough? Their form has not been consistent or high enough to consider starting them against England.
Hooker is a worry. You can't say Liam Coltman is better than Rhys Marshall. You can't say he's better than Ged Robinson even. Same with James Parsons or Tom McCartney.
Keven Mealamu has hardly played, and if he's not right, one of these unproven guys will have to play. The opportunity is there for someone to rise up and grab it.
Midfield isn't quite the same worry. Sonny Bill Williams will return soon, Ben Smith is a legit option, Ryan Crotty won't let you down, Francis Saili is only just back off the injury list and I'm sure Charles Piutau is an option.
So, let's break down the three main categories of contenders as I see them.
Under threat These are the likes of Jeremy Thrush, TJ Perenara, Tom Taylor, Ardie Savea, Dominic Bird and Frank Halai.
None of these guys has built on the opportunity they had last year. They haven't come into Super Rugby and played like All Blacks. And that's a shame.
Think about the outside backs situation. Cory Jane has not been playing and Israel Dagg is not playing well. Someone playing great footy could put their foot in the door. The first step will be to get invited to the May camps, and the only way in from the outside is by playing well in Super Rugby Some of these guys who got their chances last year haven't kicked on. Yes, it's a big ask to do it every week but the bottom line is that's how you become an All Black. These guys shouldn't take for granted the opportunity they had last year. Some, if they get invited to the first camp, will be there on potential, not performance.
They've got a month to earn the right to be in the All Black frame.
On the fringe This is an interesting category. Kaino, back from Japan, is one. Saili is another. I'd put Ben Afeaki and Victor Vito in too.
They've been there, they know what it takes, they've performed at a high level and their challenge now is to do it again They would have been given their instructions, set their challenges. They'll know what they need to do to be part of that first All Blacks squad.
They, too, have a month to make a pretty serious statement.
On the move This is the group I'm excited about. Some of this is based on talent, some on reputation, and now it will be interesting to see where these guys end up.
Malakai Fekitoa is one at the Highlanders, Brad Shields is another if you're thinking untapped potential. Bryn Hall comes into this category, and also Charlie Ngatai, who always seems to make the Chiefs better when he's out there.
Anton Lienert-Brown could get there. No one knows too much about this guy but if the Chiefs are prepared to play him, it says a lot.
Chiefs second-rower Matt Symons is another on the rise. I like our top three locks, but the Chiefs understand how to get the best out of individuals. And if you're looking for a bolter, how about Augustine Pulu? He's sharing time with an All Black, but he's got attributes that could get him in the mix.
- Sunday Star Times
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