WELLINGTON - All Blacks coach Steve Hansen will again balance the double expectations of winning every test match while trying to give less experienced players a chance to develop as he beds down his tactics and squad for next year's Rugby World Cup.
The All Blacks, who are unbeaten in the Rugby Championship over the last two seasons, have arguably their most settled squad after a raft of injuries to senior players kept them out of various series during that time.
Captain Kieran Read, lock Brodie Retallick and hooker Dane Coles, all of whom missed the 3-0 series sweep against France in June, have returned to the squad, although Coles is unlikely to see action until the end of the tournament.
Loose forwards Sam Cane and Liam Squire also were off the pace in June after returning from long-term injuries and should be back up to speed, adding a combative streak to the All Blacks pack. Hansen used the France series to blood several new players and while injury and form lapses could rule a few out, it is now highly unlikely anyone not already on the staff's radar will make it to Japan.
Five of those who made their test debuts in June, loose forwards Shannon Frizell and Jackson Hemopo, prop Karl Tu'inukuafe, flyhalf Richie Mo'unga and centre Jack Goodhue, were retained in the Rugby Championship squad. Much of the focus will be on how Mo'unga performs when given the opportunity after a superb season for the Canterbury Crusaders during their run to a ninth Super Rugby title.
Some believe he deserves the number 10 jersey ahead of incumbent Beauden Barrett and utility Damian McKenzie, who might also get time at flyhalf after spending most of his career as a fullback. Hansen, however, has typically stuck with players who have delivered at test level, and Barrett should start for most of the Rugby Championship, with McKenzie coming off the bench.
The coach also has a selection conundrum for the mix of his back three with incumbent fullback Ben Smith likely to be moved to right wing occasionally to give Jordie Barrett more time in his position.
The selection of Hemopo as a blindside flanker could also provide an interesting sub-plot against the abrasive South Africa and Argentina packs. The rangy 24-year-old played the entire Super Rugby season as a lock, but Hansen has said he will select him on the side of the scrum, placing him in direct competition with Otago Highlanders team mates Squire and Frizell.Reuters