Testing times in All Blacks as Steve Hansen digs deep for his props
OPINION: It's been a long time since we've fretted too much about the All Blacks front row. But that could all be about to change.
Suddenly with the season-ending injuries to reliable bookends Joe Moody and Owen Franks, on top of Charlie Faumuina's decision to bolt for France, Steve Hansen has been forced to dig deeper than anticipated into his front-row depth chart.
The coach's decision to toss inexperienced, under-the-radar prop Kane Hames in to start at loosehead against the Springboks at Albany on Saturday is a bold one. But it also includes an element of risk, with Hames light on test experience, and hardly carrying a reputation as a fearsome scrummager.
He has only two test caps to his name, with both appearances off the bench against Australia. The road is set to get a heck of a lot steeper for the likeable 29-year-old Tasman and Chiefs front-rower against a Boks outfit that will ask some searching questions.
The easier route would have been to promote experienced loosehead Wyatt Crockett to start, and bring Hames off the bench. But Hansen has clearly sensed an opportunity to find something out about the late-blooming, switch-hitting prop.
Right now Crockett and the still developing Nepo Laulala are the All Blacks' most accomplished props. Behind them are the raw Ofa Tu'ungafasi and Hames, with the untested Tim Perry also called up this past week.
Aside from Crockett's 64 tests, there is not a lot of experience there.
New Zealand rugby fans are nervous enough types at the best of times; when they ponder the ramifications of, say, one more injury, or even what's still to come in 2017, some nailbiting could ensue.
But there's a flip side. The All Blacks are about to build some serious depth at prop which will be all kinds of valuable heading toward the next World Cup.
On Tuesday I asked assistant coach Ian Foster about that very prospect, and he declared it a "great opportunity". He added: "It's exciting. We're in a cycle two years out from the World Cup and it's a great time for us to be exposing more players into it."
We might also be a little wiser about the All Blacks' inconsistent play through the first three Rugby Championship matches, courtesy of Foster.
The genial assistant was asked to explain the differences between his dominant All Blacks of last year, and what is unfolding in 2017, what with the Lions struggles, and the form fluctuations through the first part of the RC.
"We're trying to change our game in some aspects, with some longer-term things in mind, and making sure we don't stand still," said Foster.
"Often you've got to go through a little bit of pain when you do that.
"We're probably also dealing with more changes this year than we have for a number of years. Constantly making changes to the XV takes a little while to bed in."
It's the first part of that statement that's most relevant. The All Blacks are clearly making some transitional tweaks to their playing style with a view to the 2019 World Cup, They're essentially asking for a bit of patience while they get better at it.
They are certainly kicking a bit less than in the past, and there have been subtle changes to the way they're attacking. They are also still working through the best way to counter the rush defence which is now de rigueur in test rugby.
Undoubtedly some of the chasing pack have closed the gap. But over the previous two World Cup cycles the All Blacks have been very good at continuing to stay a step ahead of their rivals. There is no reason to suddenly doubt them now.
Change is a process. And right now it would appear the All Blacks are in the early stages of a transition that has its focus very much on the long game.
What is it they say? No pain, no gain.