More All Blacks' World Cup selection uncertainty than you might think

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No issues between Cheika, Larkham (0:38)

Raelene Castle plays down talk of a relationship breakdown between Stephen Larkham and Michael Cheika after the assistant coach was moved on. (0:38)

World Cup years always have a little extra zing to them. Players are putting themselves forward for selection while team management construct their squad with a view to executing a World Cup plan.

It is always fascinating, and can never be an exact science because of the possibility of injuries upsetting the best laid plans. No one is immune from scrutiny, the pressure is on from the players highest on the pecking order to those down the ranks.

Key players need to step up in a Rugby World Cup year: For the All Blacks that's Kieran Read and Beauden Barrett.

There's been some pressure on halfback Aaron Smith, too, with TJ Perenara playing some really good rugby towards the end of last season. We need both of them to be playing well, and a third one like Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, to each be hitting their straps. And I'm sure Brad Weber will be determined to impress after slipping off the radar, he'll be fit and ready to go this year.

There is real pressure for everyone because you can only take 31 players to the World Cup. There are going to be some casualties. You can pick any position you like and there is pressure.

Sam Cane is having a delayed start to his due to the broken neck he suffered against the Springboks last year, so there will be greater emphasis on the openside flanker role.

Ardie Savea stepped up last season and I'm sure Matt Todd will be performing on cue. But behind them there are two Auckland boys in Dalton Papali'i, who was on the end of year tour last year, and Blake Gibson, who will hopefully be over the injury issues he has had.

There's also Dillon Hunt; he'll be maturing nicely now and could do with a big season. But if for any reason Cane isn't available then there are two very good players at least with some up-and-comers on the way.

Apart from that who would you pencil in as the certainties for inclusion? Possibly the three locks: Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett, and maybe Patrick Tuipulotu in behind.

There are two hookers in Dane Coles and Codie Taylor who are guaranteed selections. Props Joe Moody and Owen Franks are also assured if fit, while Karl Tu'inukuafe and Ofa Tu'ungafasi are also strong options who can play both sides of the scrum. Tu'ungafase needs another big year just to solidify his place after his outstanding season last year.

Blindside flanker is another area of interest. Liam Squire looks to be the preferred option but Vaea Fifita certainly showed he didn't like being left out; there's the other options of Shannon Frizell and Jackson Hemopo as well.

As I said, the numbers don't fit into a 31-man squad so it is going to be a really interesting year.

Then you look at the backs; that's where you will get bolters and where you have to pick on form. The likes of Waisake Naholo, Damian McKenzie and Rieko Ioane are tried and tested, but what about George Bridge Bridge and Braydon Ennor? It is going to be exciting.

Let's not forget that unfortunately there are going to be injuries, which might make selection a little easier for Steve Hansen if players are unavailable. It is going to be Hansen's biggest year, he is really going to earn his money.

I think the fact he has come out and said he will be retiring from the All Blacks after the World Cup adds more pressure to his role this year. He is a perfectionist, he runs a really good ship and he's created a culture and environment that the players are relishing. I think the pressure he will put on himself, just through knowing the guy that he is, he will absorb a lot of that pressure and set the standards really high.

He won't want to bow out after an amazing tenure finishing second, third or fourth. If any of those players are lucky enough to get selected the best parting gift they could give Hansen apart from the World Cup is honouring him and his career. And I hope that happens.

Hansen's move in anointing Ireland as favourites for the World Cup was clever because it takes some of the pressure off the All Blacks. There is no doubt the northern hemisphere countries now think the All Blacks are there for the taking.

We can't make any excuses. I've always said it, and I will stand by it, when the Blacks don't win it's because they aren't playing the best they could possibly play on that day.

But if they go out with the right mindset and play to the best of their ability, if they've got the black jersey on then there's no other team in the world that can beat them.