Winning selection from a swollen pool of talent for the All Blacks’ Rugby World Cup defence could well be a matter of timing.
Those players involved in the 41-13 rout of Australia at Eden Park – comfortably New Zealand’s best performance of the year – now have the inside running to be included in the 31-man tournament squad unveiled on August 30.
Others who were asked to show their wares in earlier, less convincing efforts, could find themselves on the outer when coach Steve Hansen and his selectors brandish their red pens over the next fortnight.
The most compelling late runs have come from rookie wing Nehe Milner-Skudder and resurgent loose forward Victor Vito, who were among several standout performers in Auckland.
Milner-Skudder’s electric feet and vision may prise open a place in the most hotly-contested part of the field, the outside backs.
With Ben Smith and Julian Savea the only certainties, there is a strong argument to also take the in-form Charles Piutau and relinquish the craft and high-ball expertise of seasoned pair Israel Dagg and Cory Jane.
One-Test flyer Waisake Naholo may yet be in the mix if the Fijian herbal treatment of his fractured leg has worked a miracle recovery.
Vito’s performance and Hansen’s suggestion that only three specialist locks could be picked may expand the loose forward contingent to six.
Luke Romano or Jeremy Thrush would be the unlucky lock in that case, while the rest of the forward options largely pick themselves, particularly if injured prop Charlie Faumuina (neck) isn’t being considered.
Numerous world class backs will miss the cut, and not just among the three-quarters.
Hansen has suggested just two specialist halfbacks may travel, with third-choice Tawera Kerr-Barlow having failed to earn a Test shot in his return from long-term injury.
The versatile Colin Slade would be regarded as halfback cover while another valuable squad member would be inside centre Beauden Barrett, who has clocked plenty of Test minutes at fullback.
It would create space for New Zealand rugby’s form No.10 Lima Sopoaga to bolt into the tour party on the back of a memorable debut against the Springboks in Johannesburg.
Sonny Bill Williams’ mixed form shouldn’t count against his inclusion, leaving the reliable Ryan Crotty and several other fringe midfield hopefuls on the outer.
POSSIBLE NZ WORLD CUP SQUAD
Backs: Ben Smith, Charles Piutau, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Julian Savea, Conrad Smith, Malakai Fekitoa, Ma’a Nonu, Sonny Bill Williams, Dan Carter, Beauden Barrett, Colin Slade, Lima Sopoaga, Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara.
Forwards: Kieran Read, Victor Vito, Richie McCaw, Sam Cane, Jerome Kaino, Liam Messam, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Luke Romano, Owen Franks, Nepo Laulala, Tony Woodcock, Wyatt Crockett, Ben Franks, Dane Coles, Keven Mealamu, Codie Taylor.