The All Blacks completed a second straight clean sweep of The Rugby Championship during the weekend with a thrilling 25-24 victory over the Springboks at the weekend.
They now face Australia in Brisbane later this month then travel to the Northern Hemisphere. Here are four potential possibilities for the remainder of 2017:
1. Start Lima Sopoaga against Australia
The Highlanders fly-half has only started one of his twelve Test matches to date (back in 2015).
His cameo against the Pumas in New Plymouth showed he is capable of being the back-line general.
Having a start against Australia in an already secured Bledisloe Cup match will be a perfect opportunity for him.
Being partnered with Highlanders teammate Aaron Smith will give him some familiarity to slot into the ten jersey. Sopoaga is a creative play maker who will run well into gaps without the same speed of incumbent Beauden Barrett.
He is a calm decision maker and is an accurate goal kicker.
2. Rest captain Kieran Read against Australia
To rest Read against an improving Wallabies team in Brisbane on October 21 is a gamble due to the high level of play he has shown this year.
His captaincy is improving with more aggressive decisions at penalties to search for tries rather than penalty goals.
Read only missed ten minutes of playing time during The Rugby Championship due to a yellow card. A rest in Brisbane will allow him to be fresh for the Northern Hemisphere tour.
The All Blacks can experiment at number eight if the 106-Test veteran is rested. Options would include abrasive blindside flanker Liam Squire. He would relish more ball carrying freedom at the back of the scrum.
Jerome Kaino may be considered for a long awaited return after dealing with some personal issues. His most recent rugby has been at last man down for Auckland while trying to get match fitness.
Resting Read will allow someone else to lead the All Blacks. Sam Whitelock and Sam Cane are two options. Whitelock was the victorious Crusaders captain in 2017 and is a key decision maker in the second row.
Sam Cane has once led the All Blacks in a Test match against Namibia during the 2015 World Cup.
3. Start fringe players during the end of year tour
Two non-internationals against The Barbarians and a French Selection will be an opportunity to start those players who have had limited game time in 2017.
The ever-improving prop Ofa Tu’uangafasi should start one of the non-international tour matches to see if he can anchor a scrum when starting a game.
Ardie Savea will be suited to play against The Barbarians. His pace and athleticism will be a good sight at Twickenham if we see a traditionally expansive Barbarians style of play.
Powerful midfield back Ngani Laumape is also due a start. His last start was the third Lions Test.
A blockbusting ball runner will cause havoc against composite teams such as the French Selection who may not have their defence structure organised.
2016 debutants Scott Barrett and Anton Lienert-Brown are options to start at least one of the internationals on tour. This will depend on how Steve Hansen will manage key players such as Brodie Retalick and Ryan Crotty.
4. Take a fourth scrum-half on tour
With Tawera Kerr-Barlow expected to tour before he joins La Rochelle, there is an opportunity for another scrum-half to be a regular in the squad going into 2018.
If the selectors are looking for a like for like replacement, Augustine Pulu is worth considering. The two-Test halfback is 90 kilograms (Kerr-Barlow is 89 kilograms) and likes to attack the ruck fringes with strong running.
Pulu is a strong tackler and will tackle big forwards in the close contact areas. Crusaders duo Bryn Hall and Mitchell Drummond have shown good domestic form in 2017. Hall has great game management especially with his kicking options.
Drummond has a crisp pass and is a very good support player which will suit the All Blacks with their large number of line breaks.
Whoever the fourth option is will want to take their opportunities to become one of the three scrum-halves to accompany Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara from next year.
The upcoming match against the Wallabies and the end of year tour will provide a further opportunity to create more depth for Hansen. Getting the balance right of selecting first choice players and experimenting for the future will be the challenge.
Carlin Crossan, Pundit Arena
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