As the Lions finally put boot to grass tomorrow against the New Zealand Barbarians, anticipation is rising about the All Black squad to be named on June 8 and which players will be kitted out in black.
Here we have five key questions for the selectors to contemplate.
1. Is Form Temporary And Class (And Experience) Permanent?
This shapes as being the question which will determine the fates of incumbent All Blacks who are short on match form and fitness due to injuries. And the list is long. Dane Coles, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Kieran Read, Sonny Bill Williams, Lima Sopoaga, Beauden Barrett, Scott Barrett, Ben Smith and Israel Dagg have had limited game time at Super Rugby level in the lead up to the Lions series.
In some positions, there is abundant talent to step up to international level, but players like Coles and Milner-Skudder have next level skill sets and big game mindsets, which Steve Hansen may make extra special allowances for. But, how far does your trust in players go before it becomes blind faith?
2. Will Hansen Take A Gamble On Youth?
There is some electrifying talent waiting in the wings (and sometimes on the wings) for opportunities. Players like Damian McKenzie, Rieko Ioane and Jordie Barrett play the game without fear, and seem to have the temperament to be able to step up to the pressure inferno of the Lions tests.
But, will Hansen see it as too much too soon?
3. Will The Departing All Blacks Be Selected?
In the past, Steve Hansen has demanded loyalty from his troops and generally not selected players like Charles Piutau who declared that they would be leaving New Zealand rugby to take up overseas contracts. However, the one-off importance of the Lions series and the cavalcade of injuries in some positions may force a change in mindset by Hansen.
This will mean that Aaron Cruden, Steven Luatua and Charlie Faumuina stand a good chance of adding a few more All Black memories before their departures for European teams next season.
4. How Many Of The Red Hot Crusaders Team Will Be Selected?
While you could make a case that all five of the New Zealand teams are in good form, this Crusaders outfit is something special. Unbeaten in 13 games, with a points differential of 247, the ‘strugglers’ have become the strutters, and there are now many players who could be in the selectors’ minds.
Players like Seta Tamanivalu, Richie Mo’unga, Jack Goodhue and David Havili are in the form of their lives and may join their teammates like Sam Whitelock, Kieran Read and Owen Franks in the national colours. The question is: when?
5. Pace Vs Power – How Will Hansen Find The Right Balance?
Hansen has many players with both attributes and will be eyeing up match-ups with the potential Lions run-on 15 to exploit possible areas of weakness. Who would he like to charge into Owen Farrell at fly-half or midfield? Who will be his breakdown turnover pilferer? Will he want his wing to bump off Elliot Daly or run round George North?
Hansen has always liked a balanced team with players with points of difference. For this reason, players with similar attributes like Julian Savea and Waisake Naholo are unlikely to take to the field together. This policy worked brilliantly in the 2015 World Cup and came unstuck when a power-stacked team was overrun and outplayed by the Irish last year.
Don’t expect the same selection complacency this time round.
Kaal Kaczmarek, Pundit Arena