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Wellington – The All Blacks on Sunday named seven uncapped players in their 30-man squad for the Ireland Test series and threw a lifeline to out-of-form veterans Piri Weepu and Ali Williams.
In the first All Blacks squad to be chosen since they won the World Cup eight months ago, new head coach Steve Hansen is mixing experience with promise for the three-match series that starts on June 9 in Auckland.
“We have selected a really balanced squad of experienced players who have played with distinction over a number of Tests, and a group of young players with huge potential,” he said.
The new forwards include locks Brodie Retallick and Luke Romano, flanker Sam Cane Ä who is seen as heir apparent to captain Richie McCaw Ä and 20-year-old Ben Tameifuna, who started the year as a back-up prop at the Waikato Chiefs.
In the backs, fly-half Beauden Barrett, scrum-half Aaron Smith and wing Julian Savea are brought into the All Blacks for the first time.
Fifty-six-Test Weepu, who has struggled for form with the Auckland Blues and was not even required for their Super 15 match against the Chiefs on Saturday.
Barrett is the third fly-half behind Dan Carter and Aaron Cruden, but in talking up Weepu, Hansen praised his ability to also fill in at pivot, effectively giving the squad four number 10s.
However, there are only two scrum-halves with the in-form Andy Ellis sidelined to make way for Smith, who possesses a bullet-like pass, and Weepu.
Hansen acknowledged Weepu is playing well below par but believed he would return to his best for the international series.
“It came down to either Piri or Andy and we felt with Piri's added ability to goal-kick, and play first five (fly-half) if we get a double-injury, they're advantages,” Hansen said.
“He's very highly motivated, and that gives us confidence we'll get the Piri Weepu we know and we've all loved in the past.”
Hansen added he had no concerns about Weepu's inability to secure regular game time with the Blues.
“The bigger the occasion the better he steps up. He's proven that, hence why we've stuck with him. We're confident he'll produce the goods for us in this series.”
However, the public in rugby-obsessed New Zealand did not share Hansen's optimism with an on-line poll by the New Zealand Herald showing 63 percent against the contentious selection.
The Fairfax Media website drew feedback such as “what a disgrace”, “the most ludicrous selection decision”, and “what complete and utter garbage”.
Last year, Weepu starred for the All Blacks in the World Cup at fly-half after the first choice selections Carter, Colin Slade and Cruden were injured.
In the off-season he quit the Wellington Hurricanes and moved to the Blues, were he started the season unfit, overweight and faded from their regular starting line-up.
Williams and Ma'a Nonu are other members of the misfiring Blues whose All Blacks selection appears to fit with Hansen's preference for “proven performers” Ä even though they are struggling in the worst-performing New Zealand Super 15 side.
Six established internationals including Cory Jane, Richard Kahui and Jerome Kaino were not considered because of injury.
Last year's All Blacks who missed selection include Jimmy Cowan, Jarrad Hoeata and Corey Flynn while Mils Muliaina, Stephen Donald and Brad Thorn have moved offshore.
Forwards: Sam Cane, Wyatt Crockett, Ben Franks, Owen Franks, Andrew Hore, Richie McCaw (captain), Keven Mealamu, Kieran Read, Brodie Retallick, Luke Romano, Ben Tameifuna, Adam Thomson, Victor Vito, Sam Whitelock, Ali Williams, Tony Woodcock
Backs: Beauden Barrett, Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden, Israel Dagg, Tamati Ellison, Hosea Gear, Zac Guildford, Ma'a Nonu, Julian Savea, Aaron Smith, Ben Smith, Conrad Smith, Piri Weepu, Sonny Bill Williams
Hooker Hika Elliot has been named as standby for the injured Mealamu.
June 9, 1st Test, at Auckland
June 16, 2nd Test, at Christchurch
June 23, 3rd Test, at Hamilton – Sapa-AFP