Injuries continue to cast a cloud over the All Blacks' potential World Cup squad makeup, while the more they play, the more it looks as though the Crusaders are in a race of their own in Super Rugby.
Stuff's rugby writers gather to offer their views on the hot topics of the rugby week:
Should the All Blacks take the risk and go with just two specialist No 10s at the Rugby World Cup? And who might be that utility cover they're hinting at?
Marc Hinton: A conditional yes. Given the lack of international quality behind the big two, I would not have a problem with it providing they have a utility third choice they would be prepared to live with as bench cover in a knockout match. There's a decent chance they lose Beauden Barrett or Richie Mo'unga to injury at some stage in Japan (see 2011), and next cab up would have to be someone trusted for the final quarter of a pivotal match. Jordie Barrett has the skills, but no recent experience. Same with David Havili. Whoever it is needs time in the saddle.
Paul Cully: No. Let's say Beauden Barrett gets a head knock in the quarterfinal, and misses a week with concussion. That means they'd go into a World Cup semifinal with one No 10 (they can't call up an extra one from New Zealand because Barrett would still be part of the squad). But if they do David Havili would be a good choice. Tonga coach Toutai Kefu told me he was looking at Havili as their World Cup No 10 before he was capped by the All Blacks.
Liam Hyslop: Take two specialists. Everyone needs to calm down. The 2011 World Cup first-five crisis was such a statistical improbability that it's unlikely to happen again. David Havili can be the cover. He's been known to bomb shots at goal in from 60m out for Tasman and has played in the midfield and at first receiver at various points in his career.
Robert van Royen: Yes, unless another first five puts their hand up and demands selection, which so far hasn't happened. Crusaders fullback David Havili, who is among the best in terms of beating defenders in Super Rugby this season, could be the man. He has played a stack of rugby in the midfield and can also play a bit of 10. The 24-year-old also has one heck of a boot on him.
Is it time to start worrying about Owen Franks? And who replaces him in the No 3 jersey if that troublesome shoulder doesn't come good?
Hinton: Any injury as bothersome and persistent as this is a concern and Franks' experience and scrummaging prowess is irreplaceable. That said, New Zealand rugby is awash with decent tightheads and Nepo Laulala, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Tyrel Lomax and Angus Ta'avao are all capable performers. One spot we might get away with a key defection.
Cully: Franks' second round of scans is definitely something to fret about. The guy is just a rock at scrum time. That said, Nepo Laulala is a terrific replacement and Tyrel Lomax could slot in the squad as the backup tighthead with Ofa Tu'ungafasi covering both sides.
Hyslop: I'd say so. You don't want a pillar of your scrum to be heading into a World Cup wounded or underdone. As for the replacement, I'm not going to pretend to have the scrummaging knowledge to know who's the next cab off the propping rank.
Van Royen: Absolutely. Crusaders coach Scott Robertson's body language when discussing the need for a second scan before the bye made sure of that. Let's hope Nepo Laulala stays healthy. After him, young Highlander Tyrel Lomax has come along nicely this season.
If you were picking an All Blacks squad tomorrow, your third No 9 would be ...?
Hinton: Brad Weber. The Chiefs halfback appears to have his game back in order and is making a difference with his speed, both around the park and clearing the ball. Hard to see how they can stick with Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi when he can't command a starting spot with his franchise.
Cully: I'm a big Bryn Hall fan. He's got great composure levels and you would back him to bring the All Blacks home in a tight game. His understanding with Richie Mo'unga is also a big plus.
Hyslop: Brad Weber. His form is so good he's forced Tahuriorangi into playing club rugby this season. The third-choice No 9 is unlikely to even see a 23, so may as well pick a form horse for the role, as well as a good sort, which Weber seems to be.
Van Royen: A close call with Bryn Hall edging Brad Weber, who continues to keep Tahuriorangi on the sidelines. Speaking of Tahuriorangi, he was playing club rugby last weekend.
Right now who's the biggest threat to the Crusaders ticking off a Super Rugby title threepeat?
Hinton: Has to be the Hurricanes. But threat only in the sense that of all the contenders, they're the only ones capable of knocking over the Red and Blacks in Christchurch on their day ... if the moons aligned, the going was firm, and they played the game of their lives. The South Africans will all be undone by the travel factor and Aussies just aren't good enough. The Canes have the firepower and belief, if not the pack, but, let's face it, they might as well send the trophy to the engravers now.
Cully: The Highlanders, or possibly Blues, but bear with me because this gets complicated. If the Highlanders finish eight in the overall ladder then they will almost certainly play the Crusaders in one quarterfinal. That game would represent a far greater risk to the Crusaders than the final, which at this stage would involve flying over (or back) from a semifinal in South Africa.
Hyslop: The Hurricanes. Yeah, I'm hearing you, the Hurricanes lost by an aggregate of 70-30 across their two games against each the 'Saders this year, but the last team to win the comp other than the Crusaders are building slowly. Their pack is improving week to week, which would be crucial in a one-off final, while the backline has shown glimpses of their enormous potential.
Van Royen: The Hurricanes. They say good teams find ways to win and that's exactly what they've been doing, regardless of how unconvincing many of their scalps have been. On their day, they could pull off an upset due to their many X-factor players. But, then again, it's hard to imagine them rolling into Christchurch with their pack and getting it done.
The Lions deliberately deceived with their announced team to face the Chiefs last weekend. Boss move or dud move, and should Sanzaar act?
Hinton: Dud move. And Sanzaar should at the very least send them a stern letter saying so. Why have team namings if you're not going to enforce rules around them (exhibit A, the NRL). Plus there's the public to consider. The people who buy match tickets and pay TV subs fund this sport. They deserve not to have the wool pulled over their eyes by conniving coaches.
Cully: Irrelevant. I'd be stunned if the Chiefs actually looked at the Lions team and made a decision to leave out some 'big' forwards, as the Lions have implied. Normally, selections are made well in advance and the reason the Chiefs lost had more to do with the fact that Brodie Retallick and Damian McKenzie were missing.
Hyslop: I'm all for skulduggery in sport, but I didn't buy the Lions' CEO claiming it was some genius move. Teams are generally picked on a Monday, with little regard for the exact lineup of the opposition. The Chiefs just aren't very good, which was more why the Lions won, rather than any underhanded tactics.
Van Royen: It's a bit of a dud move, but surely the Chiefs weren't silly enough to act upon the Lions' lineup. Regardless of what Lions chief executive Rudolf Straeuli thinks, it didn't impact the result.