Nehe Milner-Skudder and Nepo Laulala are next in line for All Blacks

Hurricanes wing Nehe Milner-Skudder in action for NZ Maori against the Lions.

Hurricanes wing Nehe Milner-Skudder in action for NZ Maori against the Lions.

Hurricanes wing Nehe Milner-Skudder and Chiefs prop Nepo Laulala could be the All Blacks' next cabs off the rank for the Rugby Championship - if they make the most of their chances to impress during the Super Rugby finals stretch.

But Chiefs midfielder Charlie Ngatai has a tougher row to hoe if he hopes to reclaim the spot he was denied in 2016 when an untimely head injury curtailed his first national selection before it even begun.

All three will be eyeing national callups when Steve Hansen announces his 33-strong squad for the Rugby Championship. There won't be many post-Lions changes, but he does have two spots to fill with the departure to France of Aaron Cruden and Charlie Faumuina.

Chiefs prop Nepo Laulala is likely to be the man to replace the departing Charlie Faumuina.

Chiefs prop Nepo Laulala is likely to be the man to replace the departing Charlie Faumuina.

Hansen has already anointed highlanders No 10 Lima Sopoaga and Blues prop Ofa Tu'ungafasi the likely successors in terms of the match-day squad; but he will have to bring in another first-five and prop to the larger group.

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The powerful Laulala, who has been challenged to improve his fitness and agility, shapes as the logical prop callup, especially now he's shaken off a horror knee injury that wrecked his 2016. He's spent time around the squad in the past, and his potential has been identified.

Look for Hansen to move the dynamic Damian McKenzie into his first five depth chart post-Cruden, which might open up a back-three spot for Milner-Skudder who was fabulous in 2015 and will enhance his cause with a strong finals run with the Hurricanes.

Ngatai's case is more problematic. The All Blacks have a firmly established midfield in Sonny Bill Williams, Ryan Crotty and Anton Lienert-Brown, with Ngani Laumape solidifying his standing as the fourth member with that strong showing in the third test against the Lions.

Ngatai might need an injury, or something extraordinary with the Chiefs, to leapfrog one of that quartet (and promising backup Jack Goodhue) into the All Blacks.

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The back three remains loaded with contenders, but suffice it to say that Rieko Ioane, Waisake Naholo, Julian Savea and Milner-Skudder should all put aerial work at the top of their lists.

Problematic Blues lock Pat Tuipulotu is another interesting case. Right now he's on the outside looking in, without a platform to push his case post-season. The All Blacks haven't given up on him, but he's another who needs game-time to impress.

In other issues, as of late in the week the All Blacks still hadn't heard from World Rugby around the contentious late ruling from Romain Poite at Eden Park that denied them a match-winning penalty they had been awarded in the third test against the Lions.

They certainly are expecting some sort of clarification.

And there will not be a change of hotel in Sydney for Bledisloe I, despite last year's Spygate bugging saga that took a strange twist with the charge of team security adviser Adrian Gard.

"We'll be back there, and we'll be taking no more precautions than we've been taking for a long time," Hansen said.

 - Sunday Star Times


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