WELLINGTON, New Zealand - Coach Steve Hansen insisted Julian 'The Bus' Savea has a future with the All Blacks despite dumping the blockbusting wing from his Rugby Championships squad on Monday.
Savea, who has scored 46 tries in 55 Tests, missed out as a fit-again Nehe Milner-Skudder returned to the frame in Hansen's 33-man squad.
Savea had previously been a regular in New Zealand's 11 jersey since 2012, but he now finds himself dropped on his 27th birthday and in an increasingly precarious position.
He was only required for the third Test in the Lions series, and was then relegated to the bench by the Wellington Hurricanes for their Super Rugby semi-final against South Africa's Golden Lions.
But Hansen said Savea's All Blacks career was not over, adding that he would he meeting with the giant wing later this week.
"Julian's been a very, very good All Black for us and done some great things - I feel for him a wee bit at this stage," Hansen said.
"He's disappointed and so he should be. He's done a lot in the jersey, he's enhanced it when he's worn it and his time's not over.
"We've organised to talk to him later in the week where he'll be better ready to hear the messages and there are some good messages to give him."
With the exception of Milner-Skudder and a recall for prop Nepo Laulala, the squad reflects the frontline players used in the recent drawn series against the British and Irish Lions.
Milner-Skudder has been making a rapid return to form after being out of rugby for must of the past two years with injury problems. He last played for the All Blacks in the 2015 World Cup final.
Of the two All Blacks to take off-shore contracts following the Lions Tests, Charlie Faumuina's departure has opened the door for Laulala.
But the selectors opted not to replace Aaron Cruden, instead reducing their fly-half ranks to Beauden Barrett and Lima Sopoaga.
Damian McKenzie has been named as a replacement for fullback Ben Smith, who will take an extended break from the game following the first two matches.
"For us, it's case of re-establishing ourselves and building on our good work from last year and during the recent Lions series," Hansen said.
"There were some clear things learnt in the Lions series and this is a great chance for us to implement those; to continue to grow our skill execution and the mental side of our game, and develop our leadership and the leadership group."
Hansen said he also had to be mindful of the impact that the Rugby Championship travel, which involves playing in Australia, South Africa and Argentina, would have on the All Blacks' end-of-year northern hemisphere tour.
"There is a massive travelling component to the Championship, which comes at a cost at the end of the year, so we'll be looking to implement some new strategies to try and overcome that," he said.
Super Rugby champions Canterbury Crusaders provide the bulk of the squad with 10 players, while there are eight from the Hurricanes, six from the Waikato Chiefs, five Otago Highlanders and four Auckland Blues.
New Zealand squad:
Forwards: Dane Coles (Wellington Hurricanes), Nathan Harris (Waikato Chiefs) Codie Taylor (Canterbury Crusaders), Wyatt Crockett (Crusaders), Owen Franks (Crusaders), Nepo Laulala (Chiefs), Joe Moody (Crusaders), Ofa Tu'ungafasi (Auckland Blues), Scott Barrett (Crusaders), Brodie Retallick (Chiefs), Luke Romano (Crusaders), Sam Whitelock (Crusaders), Sam Cane (Chiefs), Vaea Fifita (Hurricanes), Jerome Kaino (Blues), Kieran Read (capt, Crusaders), Ardie Savea (Hurricanes), Liam Squire (Otago Highlanders)
Backs: Tawera Kerr-Barlow (Chiefs), TJ Perenara (Hurricanes), Aaron Smith (Highlanders), Beauden Barrett (Hurricanes), Lima Sopoaga (Highlanders), Ryan Crotty (Crusaders), Ngani Laumape (Hurricanes), Anton Lienert-Brown (Chiefs) Sonny Bill Williams (Blues), Jordie Barrett (Hurricanes), Israel Dagg (Crusaders), Rieko Ioane (Blues), Nehe Milner-Skudder (Hurricanes), Waisake Naholo (Highlanders), Ben Smith (Highlanders).
Utility replacement: Damian McKenzie (Chiefs)
New Zealand fixtures:
Aug 19 v Australia, Sydney
Aug 26 v Australia, Dunedin
Sept 9 v Argentina, New Plymouth
Sept 16 v South Africa, Auckland
Sept 30 v Argentina, Buenos Aires
Oct 7 v South Africa, Cape Town