D-Day is approaching for Steve Hansen and the All Blacks selectors for the announcement of their World Cup squad – and there are a few interesting selection dilemmas for them to mull over.
After the All Blacks' 36-0 thrashing of the Wallabies, Hansen admitted there were a few areas in the squad that required robust discussion before the official announcement of the 31-man team on Wednesday next week.
"By and large, even Joe Public could pick pretty much the large majority of the team because it's obvious who should be in," he said after his side retained the Bledisloe Cup for yet another year. "When it comes down to the last six or seven players and the combinations you want, that's when you get the robust discussions."
The 34 players who were in the Bledisloe Cup squad will be the front runners to battle it out for the final 31 places, but there are a few outsiders, one in particular, who could make Hansen pause as well.
"We've baked a lot of the cake, now it's about getting it out of the oven and putting a bit of icing on it."
Here are some of those big calls that Hansen and the selectors will have to make:
After dropping powerful prop and fan favourite Karl Tu'inukuafe from the team to face Australia, Hansen said "at the World Cup we can only take five [props] so we've still got some culling to do".
And as it stands, one of Nepo Laulala, Owen Franks, Angus Ta'avao, Ofa Tuungafasi, Joe Moody or Atu Moli will miss out.
Tuungafasi, Moody and Franks are probably locks, although there has been some discussion about whether Franks – who hasn't been the same dominant force at scrum time this year – should still be the incumbent No 3 or even make the squad at all. Franks was also left out of the team last week.
But Hansen's decision likely lies between Ta'avao and Moli, after Laulala put in a strong performance against the Wallabies at Eden Park.
Ta'avao's ability to play at both tight and loosehead prop, will likely mean Moli's fairytale All Blacks comeback from an injury which almost ended his career might stop here – for now.
For a while the big question mark was Sonny Bill Williams. The injury-plagued All Black superstar was given the task of proving his fitness and pretty much passed with flying colours.
Against the Wallabies last week, we saw glimpses of the old SBW who was the best No 12 in the world – his offload skills was on display, his tackling was almost perfect and he ran the ball with real intent, scoring a try in the process.
All indications are that if Williams is fit, he would be heading to Japan. The things he brings off the field like his leadership will also be of value to Hansen and the coaching staff.
Anton Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue are certainties. So that leaves Ryan Crotty (who is looking likely to return in time from a fractured thumb) and Ngani Laumape.
It's a tough one for Hansen but he will probably lean towards Crotty's consistency and experience.
Loose forward/lock and the Liam Squire situation
The Brodie Retallick injury might end up forcing Hansen's hand in the end.
"Do we take an extra six or do we take an extra lock?" he said last week.
"Right from day one we've had the conundrum of four locks or three. If we take Brodie and he's not ready to play then that's a big workload on the other three.
"But it's doable. We get through the South African game and we can play other people I guess."
Even though Retallick – who dislocated his shoulder against the Springboks last month – is in a race against time to be fit for the World Cup, he's not going to be dropped.
He's a top-five player in the world and even if he's only available for the knockout stages in Japan, it's probably worth the risk.
There's likely to be nine spots to fill out of the locks and loosies, with Kieran Read, Ardie Savea, Sam Cane and Matt Todd being the certainties among the loose forwards, while Retallick, Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett should be on the plane as well.
Especially after last week, Blues lock Patrick Tuipulotu – who was one of the best players on the pitch against Australia – looks likely to get the nod and fill that fourth lock spot.
That probably leaves the final loose forward spot to be between Luke Jacobson, Vaea Fifita and the big question mark of Liam Squire.
Hansen left the door wide open for Squire, who has always been a favourite of the All Blacks coach. His athleticism and ability to play six or eight probably makes him the likely choice if he made himself available.
"We've got an understanding," Hansen said. "If he's keen then he'll let me know."
The big back-rower has been in a self-imposed All Blacks exile after telling coaches that he wasn't ready for test footy. He has been suiting up for Tasman in the meantime and has put together some impressive performances.
If Squire decides to make himself available, then it'll be a tough call between him and Jacobson (who also has the ability to play six or eight), and Fifita (more of a specialist blindside).
This might be the toughest call Hansen will have to make.