New Zealand coach Stephen Kearney has given his strongest hint yet that Sonny Bill Williams may be overlooked for next week's Test in Sydney, with his focus already turning to the Kiwis recapturing the World Cup crown in 2017.
Kearney is currently faced with a couple of major selection headaches with Manly five-eighth Kieran Foran (knee) joining South Sydney hooker Issac Luke (shoulder) and Canterbury back-rower Frank Pritchard (pectoral) as incumbents to have been ruled out through injury.
The loss of Foran and lack of senior players may yet earn Williams a reprieve despite the fact that he will once again return to rugby union at the end of the season and be unlikely to be part of future New Zealand Rugby League representative teams.
Thomas Leuluai would have been the obvious replacement for Luke at hooker but with the injury to Foran it may require a more dramatic reshuffle.
Kearney, who is an assistant coach at the Broncos, may opt to use Josh Hoffman at five-eighth and keep Leuluai at hooker with a host of options available to cover fullback, centre and wing positions.
Working against Williams receiving a farewell rugby league Test call-up is the plethora of young Kiwi back-rowers such as Tohu Harris, Kevin Proctor and Jason Taumalolo desperate for the opportunity to represent their country and be part of the Four Nations campaign at the end of the year and World Cup in three years' time.
"That's something we're very mindful of as selectors and myself and what we want," Kearney said of transitioning young players into the national team. "The journey for us now is... We want to challenge for the opportunity in another four years' time in terms of a World Cup final so again the decisions that we make now are important in that process.
"That's something that myself and the selectors are certainly keeping in mind with our selection process for the Anzac Day Test obviously and also the end of the year. They're things that we're mindful of and you've just got to make sure you get the balance right."
As for the availability of Williams and likelihood of his selection, Kearney said that was still to be worked through before the announcement of the team on Sunday.
"We're not too sure about that," Kearney told NRL.com. "For us, that's something, as I mentioned about four years' time; I'm sure we'll cross that bridge over the next week."
Kearney spoke with NRL.com prior to the start of Round 7 and with Luke and Pritchard already sidelined almost predicted Foran's demise, suggesting that the Kiwi side would "probably cop an injury out of this weekend".
Despite the loss of so many key players for the Test at Allianz Stadium next Friday night, Kearney has been delighted with the emergence of previously unheralded names and the return to form of some former Kiwi representatives.
"There are some guys who have really shown some form. I look at the Wests Tigers and the two guys coming off the bench (James Gavet and Martin Taupau), they have certainly put their hand up," said Kearney, who was reappointed as Kiwis coach in February until the end of 2015, with a right of renewal through until the 2017 World Cup.
"Manu Ma'u at Parramatta, I think Adam Blair is back to playing the type of football that made him a Kiwi representative... There are some guys who are really putting their hand up.
"Gerard Beale at the Dragons hasn't played for the last couple of years, so that's a real positive."