With just 38 days until the Lions tour kicks off in New Zealand, the All Blacks should be nearing their peak in form and fitness.
But, are they all fit?
In this article, we take a look at the players from last year’s squad who could pull on a black jersey tomorrow and those who may be wrinkling the forehead of coach Steve Hansen.
The ‘Better Than Evers’
No surprises to see Barrett at the top of this list. In the past three weeks his form has been sensational, inspiring some serious debates over whether he has surpassed Dan Carter in all-round performance.
In those three games, he has scored two tries, run 440 metres, beaten 20 defenders, made ten clean breaks and eight try assists. His speed is as devastating as ever and he seems to be backing it even more than last year, his cross-kicking and chip kicking is freakishly accurate and his all-round game management seems more mature. Be wary, Lions.
Another player showing more maturity is Ardie Savea. In the past, his flying afro would be spotted in many highlight reels, but he tended to be a little hot and cold, in a similar vein to the brilliant but erratic Ioane brothers.
This season, Savea is reaching McCaw-like levels of influence in the forward pack of the Hurricanes. In the last game against the Brumbies, his motor kept running for the whole game and he finished the top tackler with 15 tackles, ran 43 metres in 16 carries, beat five defenders, won one turnover and even a rare lineout. Now if he can just add a pinch of the McCaw guile.
Whitelock’s all round performance has probably been at the same high, consistent level as previous seasons. However, this season he was made the captain of the Crusaders, who are the only unbeaten Super 18 side after nine rounds. He has also signed a new contract with the All Blacks to 2020. A content and committed player with ambitious goals can be very dangerous.
Excitement machine McKenzie has been outstanding again this season, leading running metres out of all players in the Super 18, making intricate passes, and beating players with his usual ease.
What role, if any, will he have against the Lions? He may be in direct competition with Jordie Barrett as utility cover.
The ‘Trucking Along Nicelies’
Just a few games back from injury but working quickly back to peak sharpness and his class is permanent.
Smith had to make a bold start to this season after his rollercoaster 2016. Looking sharp and will probably regain his starting No. 9 jersey.
Like Ben Smith, class is permanent and Retallick has oodles. His bullying of the Hurricanes forwards leading to an upset win has been his individual highlight so far this year.
Made a huge difference to the Hurricanes backline when he came on off the bench last week. Seems to be easing into his work this year and realises that there is no need to overplay his hand in his running game given the potency of the Hurricanes backline. Locked in for an important role in the All Black squad probably off the bench.
Kaino has been consistent and industrious in a team which generally isn’t.
In fine form as usual for the Chiefs. Will be a bench warmer for the All Blacks despite his move to France next season.
Seems to shine more in the black jersey than his Chiefs one, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Owen Franks, Joe Moody, Wyatt Crockett and Cody Taylor
The Crusaders front row has been exceptional this year, and judging by Taylor and Franks’ trick passes last week, Dane Coles might not have the sole ‘Did you see that?’ bragging rights over post-match beers this year.
Like Ben Smith, Cane has regained form and fitness quickly after an injury layoff. Supporting the lightning quick Chiefs backline on the hard tracks of South Africa is probably a pretty effective training programme.
Mobile, involved and skilled for the Blues. Should make the squad even though he is leaving for Europe at the end of this season.
Made a blockbusting start to the season with five tries in as many games but a little quiet in the past few weeks as other players’ form has caught fire around him in the Hurricanes backline.
Had a serious case of the whoopsies in his first few games but has worked his way back into form. Very strong defence and more ambition on attack than last year. But will it be enough to nail down a spot in midfield?
Has been playing very well for the Blues, looking more and more like the pacy flanker who made such an impression in his rookie Super Rugby year. Will he regret his decision to sign for the now-relegated Bristol side? Will probably not make the squad for that decision but on form, he deserves to.
Scott Barrett, Luke Romano and Patrick Tuipulotu
Part of the mobile and seriously skilful Crusaders pack, Barrett and Romano along with Tuipulotu are probably all in direct competition for the third locking position and might be ranked in that order at the moment.
The ‘Needs Improvements’
Made a sensational start with a hat-trick in the opening round but has got quieter and quieter since. He was completely shut down by Malakai Fekitoa against the Highlanders and the expected explosive midfield pairing with Sonny Bill Williams was a bit of a soggy firework against the Hurricanes with Ioane also missing three tackles. So much talent but needs to harness some fire and consistency – quickly.
A similar case to his Blues teammate. Moala has looked good with ball in hand but the trouble is the ball has often dropped out of these hands.
His distribution skills are also not at the same level as his competition in midfield at present.
The ‘Just Checked Out of Rehab-ers’
In this case, the injury lay-off and the loss of the Crusaders captaincy may have been two of the best things to happen to Read’s 2017 season. With a lot of time demands with the All Blacks captaincy, Read needed to be fresh and unburdened in his play for the Crusaders.
He had a storming game last Saturday against the Stormers, scoring a brace of tries and showing some classy sleights of hand which recalled his sublime play in 2013 when he won IRB Player of the Year. Ominous.
Will be an important player this year as the main cover for Read and Kaino at blindside flanker and No. 8. Like Read, has only had two games back from injury, but looks powerful, pacy and confident.
Sonny Bill Williams
Another player who has just two games back from injury, SBW had a mixed outing against the Hurricanes in his last match. His big match class and temperament will probably see him in the No. 12 jersey at kick-off in the first Test, but he’ll need some big games to shake off the rust and the critics before then.
Crotty has had a few minor niggling injuries which have limited his involvement in a Crusaders backline which is on fire this year. Likely to be paired with Williams in the first test and needs more game time in the next month.
Naholo looked in fine form in the early rounds for the Highlanders before injuring his hamstring again. He returned against the Sunwolves but will need to stay injury free to have any chance of making the All Black squad.
In the injury ward – coach visiting with flowers
A niggling knee injury has kept Coles out of action for the Hurricanes since the fourth round. Nominated for IRB Player of the Year in 2016, he is an absolutely crucial member of the All Black forward pack. Steve Hansen will be monitoring his progress closely.
Another recovering from a knee injury, Dagg is a certainty for the All Blacks – if fit. The top tryscorer for the All Blacks last year is due back for the Crusaders soon and is likely to test his knee against the Lions on June 10.
NMS is one of the most outrageously talented and unlucky players in world rugby. After sitting out almost all of 2016 with a shoulder injury, he returned this year, scored a hat-trick in his first game back and then promptly broke bones in his foot in the next game. Unlikely to recover for the test matches but may still terrorise the Lions as a member of the Hurricanes on June 27th.
Not sighted for some time due to a hamstring injury. It seems the Highlanders could use some yoga classes.
Another Highlander struck down this time with a leg infection. In competition with Luatua for a wider squad selection.
Playing very well for the Chiefs until recent injury but still third in line behind Smith and Perenara. Another off to Europe next season.
Kaal Kaczmarek, Pundit Arena