With so many players missing so much rugby because of injuries or suspension, the All Blacks have cause to be apprehensive heading into their first test against unpredictable France at Eden Park on Saturday.
However there will be relief that Sam Whitelock, Ryan Crotty and Sam Cane have been cleared to play with Whitelock taking over the captaincy from Kieran Read who is still recuperating from back surgery.
Unfortunately he won’t have Brodie Retallick as his locking partner after the Chiefs’ ironman suffered pectoral damage in his team’s 34-20 loss to the Crusaders.
Having gone through no fewer than 70 players since the start of last season, France finished fourth in the Six Nations with two wins, the most satisfying being a 22-16 triumph against England.
They beat Italy 34-17, lost to Scotland 32-25 but went very close against Wales and champions Ireland, losing 14-13 and 15-13 respectively.
With Morgan Parra, Yoann Maestri, Maxime Médard and brilliant midfield back Wesley Fofana all returning from injury, they will be that much stronger.
While question marks hover around the lack of match play experienced by the All Blacks forwards, their backs remain a classy act despite the withdrawal of Sonny Bill Williams with a knee injury.
In Crotty, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ngani Laumape and Jack Goodhue they are blessed with plenty of midfield depth outside brilliant halves Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett.
Named International Player of the Year over the past two seasons, Barrett is not making the dazzling breaks he once did and is not coping with the rushed defence as well as Crusader Richie Mo’unga who has outplayed him and the Chiefs’ Damian McKenzie in recent games.
A cool, calm tactician in the mould of Dan Carter, Mo’unga reads the game beautifully and showed against the Chiefs he possesses a snappy side-step that can elude the best defenders.
However Barrett remains an exceptional talent and will probably remain the national selectors’ first choice first-five for some time to come. Nevertheless with Mo’unga and McKenzie challenging, he knows he can’t rest on his laurels.
Last year the selectors favoured the Williams/Crotty midfield combination once Williams recovered from the Achilles injury he suffered at the 2016 Rio Olympics and he rewarded them with a particularly good game against Wales at Cardiff.
However the hard-running Laumape was the outstanding second-five of the Super Rugby championship, scoring 15 tries, and the ever-reliable Crotty remains a better second-five than he is a centre where Lienert-Brown’s clever ball distribution has set up so many tries.
With the back three of Ben Smith, Rieko Ioane and Waisake Naholo in sharp form, the All Blacks will seek to move the ball wide if conditions allow.
However with Joe Moody, Owen Franks, Sam Whitelock, Sam Cane and Liam Squire all short of match play, the French will fancy their chances of dominating the All Backs pack.
As a consequence, coach Steve Hansen could ring the changes off the reserves bench earlier than usual.
- Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author