OPINION: From Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal's stunning attack on former All Black Julian Savea to New Zealand rugby's continuing talent exodus, there has been plenty to mull over on the rugby front.
Stuff's rugby writers sift through the hot topics of the week and offer their takes on the issues everyone is talking about.
The Julian Savea- Mourad Boudjellal soap opera in Toulon raises some important questions. What's your chief takeaway?
Marc Hinton: I have sympathies for both parties, but less for Boudjellal who has assuredly crossed a line in sports team owners weighing in on players' performances and also clearly failed to do his homework in signing a past-his-best former All Black already sliding down the slippery slope of becoming a shadow of the player he once was. The outspoken Toulon owner got too personal in his threats to cut Savea loose, and the phrase caveat emptor springs to mind. But it's hard not to like his directness and dark humour, nor feel his frustration.
Aaron Goile: That Boudjellal is an arrogant, deluded individual. It's like he was expecting Savea to be the steamrolling winger he saw video clips of from his prime. Now it's all suddenly the Kiwi's fault that the rich team are 11th out of 14. Players, enjoy your nice little well-looked-after bubble here because it can get a bit English Premier League-style elsewhere.
Robert van Royen: That Mourad Boudjellal isn't doing himself any favours when it comes to enticing players to his club. Sure, he's got a healthy bank balance, but the top players will remember his public lashing of Savea when weighing up their options.
Paul Cully: That players should go to France with their eyes wide open. The seasons are long and the French press will get into them if the billionaire club owners don't.
Seen enough from Akira Ioane to have him in the All Blacks conversation?
Hinton: No. That was a quality performance against the Crusaders, but let's see him back that up, then back that up before we jump to any conclusions. We know the guy has talent. That's never been in doubt. It's his consistency, workrate and core tasks that have often been found wanting. But more displays like last Saturday's and we may just have ourselves a succession plan for Kieran Read.
Goile: It's just one game, but it was the start he needed to encourage a bit of chatter about his hopes. Big, bruising carries against the tough Crusaders pack, explosive attacking ability, and some good some cleanout work. He's definitely an exciting squad prospect, though what involvement he would have behind All Blacks captain Kieran Read remains questionable in this important year.
Van Royen: Hold the horses. As impressive as he was in man-handling Crusaders captain Matt Todd a couple of times last week, it's going to take more than one outing to convince Steve Hansen to throw his name into the selection mix. Backing up his round 1 performance against a beefy Sharks outfit in Durban on Sunday morning would be the ideal followup.
Cully: Not yet. Don't forget he started last year in almost identical fashion. The time to watch Akira is when the winter comes and he has to do a lot of the defensive work the All Blacks are looking for.
Beauden Barrett wanted to play against the Crusaders. His big bosses didn't want him to. Crying shame or a smart move?
Hinton: Crying shame. He's back from his 'moon and wanted to play. Get him out there. This is a marquee matchup and deserves the best players competing. Let Barrett get his All Blacks rest against the Sunwolves or an Aussie team. Same with Ardie Savea for that matter. That said, you won't see Sam Whitelock, Kieran Read or Sam Whitelock either for the 'Saders.
Goile: Smart move. Bloke's just got married, he should be now spending his Saturdays at home on domestic duties. I didn't see much of his honeymoon – I think half the world actually did, though – but I don't think there were many rugby balls or bronco tests. There's a heap of rugby to be played this year, and a man of his stature can do with just getting back up to speed for another week.
Van Royen: The biggest shame is there won't be a Beauden Barrett v Richie Mo'unga head-to-head at Christchurch Stadium on Saturday night. The lack of detail regarding his status during the week wasn't ideal, either.
Cully: Depends on what your priorities are. And surely this year the Rugby World Cup is the competition that really matters. The disruptions to Super Rugby are less relevant than they were last year.
Melani Nanai and Liam Squire are the latest to skip town. Is it a crisis yet?
Hinton: Not yet. But it's getting closer to that point. Players head off every year and the end of a World Cup cycle always sees a group of seasoned All Blacks cash in. But you get the feeling that our middle tier is being eroded to the point where it could have a ripple effect. Still keeping the ones we really want, but can't afford to keep many that we need.
Goile: No, because here's two names that immediately cancel those worries out – Etene Nanai-Seturo and Tom Robinson, who debuted for the Chiefs and Blues, respectively, last weekend, and produced eye-catching moments in those same positions as the soon-to-depart duo. Until a few real big dogs all up sticks at once and the rugby playing numbers at lower levels drop at a more dramatic rate, there's not much worry with the emerging talent pool.
Van Royen: No, but New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew will be breathing heavier when the list inevitably grows a tail. As for Squire's decision to leave, you get the feeling he needs to cash in with his brittle body now or the opportunity will forever be lost.
Cully: It's been a crisis for years and Squire and Nanai are just the latest symptoms of that. The crisis is the future of southern hemisphere rugby and the uncertainty over the format of the professional competitions.
For the Hurricanes to have a chance against the Crusaders they've got to...
Hinton: Match them in the set piece. Compete at the breakdown. And make their tackles. Simple formula but very difficult to do against the best pack in the competition (even without Read and Whitelock) and the smartest attacking unit. Hard to see this Canes team getting it done without Beauden and Ardie.
Goile: Hope the back-to-back champions spend Friday night out on the town. If that doesn't happen the visitors have their work cut out, with no Beauden Barrett and Ardie Savea to break down the red-and-black machine, who you suspect will be better for their first-up run against the Blues and can afford to put standout Braydon Ennor on the bench with Jack Goodhue returning.
Van Royen: Outside of rewinding the clock and rehashing their lineup, and slapping a cover on Christchurch Stadium, it's going to take a superhuman effort from their forwards to have a sniff in the forecast greasy conditions. Clearly, the Crusaders will take it to them with a pack which earned two penalty tries against the Blues last week. The good news for Hurricanes fans is Dane Coles is back. If only Vaea Fifita and Ardie Savea were joining him.
Cully: Get in a time machine and go forward to round 7 at the end of March, when they play the Crusaders in Wellington. By that stage they should have their All Blacks back and firing.