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Carter’s return only increases focus on Hansen’s selections

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James Mortimer     17 Jun 2014     Getty Images

To become the first nation to successfully defend a Rugby World Cup.

Never has this been achieved, and one would suspect if the tournament started tomorrow, there would be a high level of confidence in the All Blacks squad.

But as English coach Steve Lancaster will ponder his current sizeable 46-man squad, along with up to a dozen other players who could come back into calculations, New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen will be thinking about his core group.

Indeed, with 25 players capped since the 2011 Rugby World Cup Final, the cycle and regeneration has come along with a 28-1-1 ledger.

That follows on from Sir Graham Henry’s 88 win in 103 Tests since 2004 – the All Blacks will be looking to extend what has been roughly a decade of form, amongst a field of rivals that are looking strong in their own unique ways.

At that time, ten years ago, the likes of Richie McCaw, Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock, Dan Carter and Ma’a Nonu were in the infancy of their international careers.

That is a key five that bring over 500 Tests worth of experience to the table.

Dilemmas are part of All Blacks selection, talent pools are never shallow, and with just two Tests being played in 2014, debate, at least in the public forum, is surrounding the squad.

Ben Smith’s marvellous cameo, not his first although it was as a starting Test 15, has all but ensured Israel Dagg isn’t untouchable at fullback.

Equally Julian Savea’s strong return in a way emphasised that Cory Jane isn’t exploding into matches the way he has in the past, which will only intensify in debate when Dagg and Charles Piutau return from injury.

The midfield sparked into life in Dunedin, Conrad Smith’s defence awareness is ethereal at times, while Ma’a Nonu was a constant presence that was the catalyst for a handful of offensive plays.

Carter’s return for a solid 40 minutes for Southbridge will eventually create a situation where someone like the 100-Test first five, Aaron Cruden or Beauden Barrett could miss out on the match day squad with regularity.

It is difficult to remember a time when there was so much heat on the 10 jersey.

Early indications are that this might be the same at halfback, Aaron Smith has been solid but not in the same rare touch that had him among the world’s best in the last two seasons.

It is another role in the playmaking axis where there are multiple options to Hansen and co.

The back row, like fullback, has a new query after two Tests against England.

Kieran Read’s continued absence has not been critical thanks to the presence of Jerome Kaino, but it has been noticeable in recent weeks that the All Blacks have had to alter their game without the wide playing number eight.

Kaino offers an old school style take at eightman, but the tight attack of the World Champions has been discernibly more direct and less willing to shift without the wonderful hands of the IRB World Player of the Year.

The Tight Five is one area which will be giving the All Blacks coaching team some calm nights by the fire.

Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick now form one of the premier second rows in world rugby, a brilliant combination with Whitelock’s aerial abilities combining with the mongrel that the Chiefs lock flashes more with every outing.

In the front row, Dane Coles now looks well in place, a few extra kilograms have clearly encouraged his ability to get down and dirty up front, while his lineout throwing is among the best in world rugby.

Naturally there will be questions here, for the hunt for another All Blacks Test hooker is something that is taking longer that the selectors would have liked, while Tony Woodcock cannot buttress scrums forever.

There won’t be many new faces coming into the scene over the next 12 months, but they may be some regular starters who might find themselves nudged as the World Cup glare intensifies.

Henry, with significant pain, demoted Mils Muliaina during the last World Cup, retaining the fullback with the squad but making it clear Dagg had superseded him in the pecking order.

What happens with Hansen’s own chart with fascinate in the coming months.