Marc Hinton - Stuff.co.nz
Six weeks out from decision time there must be an air of contentment among the travelling triumvirate that are the All Blacks selectors.
Four form teams, the other boxing above its weight and even the injuries, touch wood, appear to be falling at the right place.
There's probably no such thing as a fully contented All Black coach - there is after all always something to worry about - but by and large you have to figure that with a month to go in the Super 14 round-robin, tea and bikkies time at the selectors' meetings must be a barrel of laughs.
From what I can work out, sifting through the in-form and the infirm, the selectors are pretty well placed wherever they look, save for tighthead prop and possibly depth at No 10.
The looming decision on Luke McAlister's eligibility - the selectors want him in the mix, the NZRU must decide whether to break their own rule - is potentially decisive, with the returning utility solving two problems at once with his ability to slot in at 10 or 12.
But all things considered it ain't the worst position to be in for Father Ted and co. Especially given the serious exodus of talent that departed these shores after the last World Cup. That's a testament to the talent production line that is New Zealand rugby, and also to the work done since by the NZRU in retaining our best players.
So, a month out from finals time in the Super 14 let's look at the contenders and pretenders when it comes to All Black selection. Let's see just how well off the three wise men really are.
Fullback presents an embarrassment of riches really, especially with Leon MacDonald looking like he's back in form for the Crusaders. Let's face it, Mils Muliaina, at the back of a Chiefs backline firing on all cylinders, is a lay-down for No 15, but in terms of backup there's also Cory Jane at the Canes and a new face in impressive young Highlander Israel Dagg. Even Paul Williams of the Blues would not disgrace a squad callup.
The big question here is whether they'll keep MacDonald on, with all the attendant issues over his head problems, or cut the cord and give someone like Jane a chance to spend some prolonged time in the environment. I'd suggest the latter, especially with Muliaina mulling a departure.
Wing hasn't always been a comfort zone of late, but, injury permitting, it is now. The incumbents are Joe Rokocoko and Sitiveni Sivivatu, but breathing down their necks you now have Lelia Masaga of the Chiefs, Hosea Gear of the Canes, Rudi Wulf of the Blues and maybe even utility Anthony Tuitavake who tends to play well wherever you put him.
Hurricane pocket-rocket David Smith is also an X-factor sort of character who is worth keeping an eye on.
The slow-starting Rokocoko and deceptively brilliant Sivivatu will take some nudging, but if Masaga gets back on the field for the business end you've got to figure he's worthy of a look.
Injuries are the only concern here. Sivivatu, Masaga and Gear have all been out of action recently, though it looks like the Chiefs pair, at least, will be back for the pointy end of the competition.
Centre presents all sorts of options, but essentially comes down to a straight tossup between two players of immense quality, Hurricane Conrad Smith and Chief Richard Kahui. Take your pick, with Tuitavake floating around as cover.
The five-eighths are where the depth issues kick in, though a nice run of form by Isaia Toeava at the Blues addresses part of the potential problem. If McAlister's available - and we'll know on Wednesday - he solves the problem, otherwise it's Stephen Donald, Ma'a Nonu and Toeava, with Piri Weepu next cab off the rank at No 10.
Of the other No 10s around, none shape as test material yet, so you have to think that until Dan Carter comes back Donald, Weepu and maybe McAlister will fill the void.
Even here it's far from doom and gloom. Toeava has thrived at 12 for the Blues, and now presents as a legitimate backup for Nonu. Donald has also been getting better and better for a Chiefs outfit growing in confidence. Weepu is a conundrum, simply because we've seen so little of him at halfback, but he's played well enough at 10 to suggest he'll be in the mix somewhere.
Halfback is a ripper battle, with Brendon Leonard playing splendidly for the Chiefs till his chest injury, Jimmy Cowan (the incumbent) shaking off a slow start to find some form in the south and Andy Ellis also picking his game up for the Crusaders.
Factor in Weepu, who is still a test-quality halfback first and foremost, his team-mate Alby Mathewson and strapping Blues No 9 Taniela Moa and you have a position rich in options.
The same goes for the loose forwards where skipper Richie McCaw, Rodney So'oialo and Jerome Kaino are the incumbents. Of that trio only Kaino could be perceived to be under any sort of pressure.
But the next group is a cracking lineup featuring Liam Messam, Adam Thomson Kieran Read, Sione Lauaki and Josh Blackie, with the Waldrom brothers also sniffing about. They can't all get in and it will be another big call on who misses out.
The second row has seen one big mover, a couple of the incumbents confirm their class, a certainty spend most of the Super 14 on the sidelines and one or two others raise their hands.
Crusader Isaac Ross has had a fabulous Super 14 and must now come into contention, while Anthony Boric (Blues) and Brad Thorn (Crusaders) continue to show their class. Ali Williams should be fresh for the test season, after seeing sporadic action only for the Blues through the first 10 weeks, while others such as Kevin O'Neill and Craig Clarke at the Chiefs, Tom Donnelly at the Highlanders, and Jason Eaton at the Canes have also had their moments.
Up front tighthead prop shapes as the one area of concern. John Afoa was playing well for the Blues till his ankle injury, while brutish Highlander Clint Newland was arguably the best of the rest, with Neemia Tialata, favoured in recent times, yet to produce his best.
Hooker will see Andrew Hore and Keven Mealamu automatic selections, while at loosehead Tony Woodcock, now back for the Blues, is without peer. Jamie Mackintosh has also been impressive on that side, while Crusader Wyatt Crockett remains an honest toiler. Ben Franks' long-term injury has kept him out of the picture.
One final comment: even some of the injuries seem to be working out well for the three wise men.
McCaw has had a decent old break through the first half of the Super 14 thanks to his ankle problems, likewise Ali Williams with his tender Achilles tendon and Woodcock with his mystery viral infection. All three are workhorses at test time and can probably do with any time off they can get.
How's this, then, for a form All Blacks team? (Presuming, of course, that everyone's fit, and with the proviso that a firing Williams would nudge Ross out. Note, the calls are tight at Nos 14, 13, 6 and 2.)15 Mils Muliaina, 14 Lelia Masaga, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 10 Stephen Donald, 9 Brendon Leonard; 8 Rodney So'oialo, 7 Richie McCaw, 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Isaac Ross, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 John Afoa, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock