All Blacks 2021: What could a New Zealand team look like for Bledisloe Cup?

The All Blacks will be without their captain for over half the Test season and yet, barring a few notable exceptions, Ian Foster remains largely spoilt for choice as he plots his second campaign in charge.

Foster made his first public appearance of the year last week as the Rugby Championship draw confirmed the All Blacks will play nine of their first 10 games of the season at home, thanks to the fraught COVID-19 landscapes in South Africa and Argentina.

In that press call, Foster confirmed the All Blacks will appoint a stand-in captain for the July Tests and Rugby Championship with Sam Cane not expected to return from his pectoral injury until the end of year tour.

Test centurion Sam Whitelock, Ardie Savea and Aaron Smith are considered leading contenders to temporarily replace Cane as skipper.

Even without Cane, New Zealand's loose forward mix overflows with contrasting talent. Dalton Papalii made a timely comeback from injury off the bench for the Blues last week and, prior to that blow, the 23-year-old proved he is ready for a crack at the All Blacks No 7 jersey.

Savea is poised to return this week too - after recovering from his knee injury - against the Force in Napier but is equally prominent from either seven or eight.

Luke Jacobson has been a standout physical presence off the back of the Chiefs scrum alongside Lachlan Boshier all season, and could easily revert to No 6, while Ethan Blackadder's work-rate continues to shine at blindside for the Crusaders.

All these contenders before you consider Shannon Frizell's power from the Highlanders and Blues duo Hoskins Sotutu and Akira Ioane, the latter finishing last year as the incumbent All Blacks' blindside flanker.

New Zealand's locking stocks have gone from famine to feast with the impressive emergence of Chiefs second-rower Tupou Vaai'i joining the evergreen Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett, Patrick Tuipulotu and Brodie Retallick, who returns from Japan.

Much has been made of how the All Blacks plan to integrate Beauden Barrett, Retallick and, to a lesser extent, TJ Perenara, after finishing their respective sabbaticals in the Japanese Top League.

Foster made it clear Barrett and Retallick, two world-class figures, are immediately available for selection while Perenara, having turned down the Sydney Roosters to ink a new NZ Rugby contract, first needs to play for a domestic team before being eligible.

The unfortunate season-ending knee injury to Highlanders halfback Folau Fakatava, coupled with his complicated eligibility scenario, leaves the All Blacks with their established rotation of Smith, Brad Weber and Perenara.

Beauden Barrett's return sets up an intriguing and sure-to-be hotly debated battle for the coveted No 10 jersey.

After largely playing fullback for the All Blacks, in a dual playmaking role with Richie Mo'unga, since 2019, Barrett has made no secret of his desire to revert to first-five on his return home.

Mo'unga's breadth of skill has set Super Rugby alight this season, carrying the Crusaders to a fifth successive title and destroying the Reds in Brisbane last weekend to put him in pole position to retain the driver's seat. Yet the nagging sense he is yet to deliver that consistent class for the All Blacks remains.

Behind Mo'unga and Barrett, Damian McKenzie offers versatility in the 15/10 role where he's been hugely influential in both capacities for the Chiefs this season.

Midfield is the biggest headache for the All Blacks. Jack Goodhue is out for the year which robs the All Blacks of their preferred centre, and Ngani Laumape's surprise decision to join Stade Francais after Super Rugby Trans-Tasman takes him out of contention.

Anton Lienert-Brown is a certainty, likely alongside Rieko Ioane who is not the finished product in his transition from wing to centre. This is where the All Blacks could be most vulnerable.

Crusaders centre Braydon Ennor missed last year's Test campaign after rupturing his ACL in the North versus South match. He and the versatile David Havili come into contention, too. Likewise, in-form Chiefs second-five Alex Nankivell is putting his hand up.

Despite George Bridge being sidelined by an appendicitis Foster has a plethora of outside backs to select from. Jordie Barrett, McKenzie, Sevu Reece, Will Jordan will be included but Caleb Clarke's absence with the Olympic sevens team - until likely after the three Bledisloe Cup matches - opens the door to another candidate.

Leicester Fainga'anuku's destructive power has buckled defensive lines for the Crusaders from the wing and midfield. That versatility could prove irresistible.

Jona Nareki's form on the left wing for the Highlanders has also been irrepressible in combination with Smith's slick passing.

Up front Joe Moody's foot surgery leaves the All Blacks light at loosehead prop. While there's ample cover in the form of Blues duo Karl Tu'inukuafe and Alex Hodgman, Moody's absence could pave the way for a maiden call up for Chiefs prop Aiden Ross after several dominant scrummaging efforts.

The third hooking role is the only other point of contention with dynamic Hurricanes rake Asafo Aumua expected to edge Samisoni Taukei'aho from the Chiefs.

The All Blacks are set to open their season with a one-off Test against Tonga. With two Tests against Vern Cotter's Fiji to follow, there's plenty of room for experimentation but after finishing a condensed six game campaign with a 50 percent win record last season, don't expect Foster to stray too far from those he has already embraced, especially with a contract extension on the line.

This year will be about delivering the consistency last season lacked.

Possible Bledisloe Cup I team:

Jordie Barrett, Sevu Reece, Rieko Ioane, Anton Lienert-Brown, Leicester Fainga'anuku, Richie Mo'unga, Aaron Smith; Ardie Savea, Dalton Papali'i, Luke Jacobson, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Ofa Tu'ungasfasi, Codie Taylor, Karl Tu'inukuafe.

Replacements: Dane Coles, Nepo Laulala, Aiden Ross, Scott Barrett, Hoskins Sotutu, Brad Weber, David Havili, Beauden Barrett