Wellington - Indications that several of New Zealand's 2011 Rugby World Cup-winning team might not be around to defend the title in Britain in 2015 may become clearer as midyear internationals approach and the Super Rugby season reaches its 12th round.
When Steve Hansen recently accepted a contract extension to coach the All Blacks at the next World Cup, he raised the possibility that some senior players may not figure in his 2015 plans.
Hansen introduced nine new All Blacks in his first season in charge last year and said growth and renewal were essential for New Zealand to hold its place as the world's No 1 rugby nation.
That philosophy will face a practical test as the Super Rugby season progresses and leading players contend with age, injury and lapses of form.
Matches in the 12th round will throw a spotlight on a number of players currently battling to hold All Blacks places, on the younger players vying to replace them and on the continuing absence of Richie McCaw, the World Cup-winning captain who will take no part in this Super Rugby season.
In weekend matches involving New Zealand teams, the Auckland-based Blues will play the Cape Town-based Stormers, the Dunedin-based Highlanders will play the Durban-based Sharks, the Hamilton-based Chiefs face the Melbourne Rebels, the Wellington-based Hurricanes travel to the Bulls at Pretoria and the Christchurch-based Crusaders take on the Brumbies in a clash of multiple champions.
There are five more rounds before the Super Rugby season breaks for June internationals, including the All Blacks' three-Test series against France for which, on current form, several World Cup players - among them flyhalves Dan Carter and Aaron Crucen, fullback Israel Dagg, centre Ma'a Nonu, hookers Keven Mealamu and Andrew Hore and prop Tony Woodcock - might not be selected.
That points to the fact the 2011 side, thought to be the foundation of a 2015 Cup bid, already might be in decline.
Of the 22 players who took part in New Zealand's 8-7 win over France in the World Cup final on October 23, 2011, five have already left New Zealand or are no longer available for All Blacks selection.
From the starting 15, blindside flank Jerome Kaino is now playing in Japan, as is his substitute, Adam Thomson. Lock Brad Thorn moved to Ireland and then Japan after the World Cup and, though he is now playing for the Highlanders, he is 37 and retired from Test rugby. Centre Sonny Bill Williams also left briefly for Japan and has now returned to Australia's National Rugby League while flyhalf Stephen Donald, who came off the reserves bench to kick the penalty goal that won the final, moved to England and is now nearing the end of his contract at Bath.
Wings Cory Jane and Richard Kahui are both injured. Jane has taken no part in the current Super Rugby season because of a knee injury while Kahui suffered the most recent of a series of shoulder injuries last weekend and his playing future is bleak.
McCaw will take no part in Super Rugby this year after taking a "sabbatical" designed to allow him to fully recuperate from the hard knocks of international rugby. The 116-test veteran, now 32, is scheduled to play his first major match of the season against Australia at Sydney on Aug. 17.
Whether he returns from the long layoff a fresher and fitter player, or disadvantaged by a lack of regular play remains a bone of contention. Crusaders chief executive Hamish Riach confirmed on Thursday the side had been financially compensated by the New Zealand Rugby Union for McCaw's absence and acknowleged public concern over the sabbatical system.
"In a very general sense I can see what that concern is and, yes, I agree with it," Riach told Fairfax media. "But we do want the All Blacks to be successful. We would hate to see them go through a test serious without depth and go through the disappointment of losing tests."
Carter missed several recent matches for the Crusaders while on leave of absence to be present at the birth of his first child and with a hamstring injury. His fitness and form remain an ongoing concern to the All Blacks' selectors.
Dagg has been dropped to the bench by the Crusaders for Sunday's match against the Brumbies after looking low on form and confidence this season.
Mealamu, who started at hooker in the World Cup final, will make his first starting appearance of the season on Friday for the Blues against the Stormers. The 102-Test veteran in an example of a senior All Black, integral to the World Cup success, who is now under pressure to find his best form.
Mealamu came off the bench in the Blue's last three matches after missing most of the first half of the season while taking an extended break from top rugby.
"It was all part of the plan. Kevvie's had his long break and we've brought him back into it," Blues coach John Kirwan said. "We're looking for him to get back to the great form and the great player that he is."
Hore, substitute hooker in the World Cup final, and Woodcock, the prop who scored the final's only try, have both moved this season to join the Dunedin-based Highlanders. Their form has been of deep concern as the Highlanders have plunged to the bottom of the table, winless after 11 rounds.
Nonu, another World Cup starter, has moved from the Hurricanes to the Blues and then the Highlanders over the past three season and also remains well short of his best form.
There are World Cup veterans who have shown form this season, among them backrower Keiran Read and lock Sam Whitelock who have been outstanding for the Crusaders, center Conrad Smith, the Hurricanes captain and Blues scrumhalf Piri Weepu.