Hansen shakes up All Blacks camp ahead of June tests
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen has omitted wingers Zac Guildford and Hosea Gear from a 35-man squad for training camps ahead of the All Blacks' three-test series against Ireland next month, but thrown a lifeline to misfiring backs Piri Weepu and Ma'a Nonu.
Hansen, who took over from Graham Henry in the wake of the All Blacks' World Cup triumph, has included 21 of the players that helped clinch the Webb Ellis trophy on home soil, but also a slew of uncapped youngsters to inject fresh blood into an ageing squad.
Julian Savea, who has helped spark the Hurricanes' revival in the Super Rugby competition this season, has been named as one of only three specialist wings in the squad, along with World Cup-winners Richard Kahui and Cory Jane.
"He's been someone that was earmarked a long time ago to be good enough as a player of a World Cup," the dour 53-year-old Hansen told reporters in Christchurch of Savea.
"He's playing with a lot of confidence as is the whole Hurricanes team ... That confidence is allowing him to showcase what he has got."
One of Gear and Guildford, who generated headlines in the offseason with a drunken, naked episode in a Cook Islands nightspot, may yet be handed a reprieve with Kahui injured.
The powerful 26-year-old came off with a dislocated shoulder during the Chiefs' 42-27 loss to the champion Reds in Brisbane on Sunday and faces a long spell on the sidelines.
Hansen showed he was not immune to sentiment by naming outside centre Nonu and scrumhalf Weepu. Both have struggled since crossing from the Hurricanes into a Blues side that has proved a colossal disappointment with only two wins after 12 weeks of the season.
The pair turned in solid performances in the Blues' win over the cellar-dwelling Lions over the weekend, but Hansen called on Weepu to lift his game.
Weepu will jostle with the Crusaders' Andy Ellis, and rookie scrumhalves Aaron Smith of the Highlanders and the Chiefs' Tawera Kerr-Barlow, at the three-day training camps in Auckland next week and Wellington on May 27-29.
"Obviously Piri's got a few questions marks around him with the way he's been playing," said Hansen, who will trim the squad to 30 on June 3, ahead of the first test against Ireland in Auckland on June 9.
"We've had a sit-down with him and made it pretty clear what our expectations are of him and he's got to meet those expectations by the end of the last camp otherwise he won't be considered for selection."
Sam Cane has been preferred to Matt Todd as captain Richie McCaw's stand-in at openside flanker, while loose forwards Brad Shields (Hurricanes) and Luke Whitelock (Crusaders) will also get a chance to impress.
The Chiefs' towering 20-year-old Brodie Retallick has also been included along with fellow uncapped lock Luke Romano, while Hurricanes flyhalf Beauden Barrett will prepare alongside Aaron Cruden and Dan Carter.
Carter has struggled to recover from a troublesome groin injury that ruled him out of the latter stages of the World Cup and has been starting at inside centre in recent weeks for the Crusaders, relinquishing kicking duties to flyhalf Tom Taylor.
Hansen said the ploy would not be repeated at national level. "If he starts for the All Blacks, it'll be at 10 in the June series," Hansen said of Carter.
Hansen defended his youthful, extended squad while conceding a number would be unlikely to see international action this season.
"We do have a large amount of the squad getting near 30 or plus-30 (years of age). Over the next one to four years we're going to have to make some changes.
"We feel that at some point (the younger players) will don the All Blacks jersey and why not bring them in and let them experience the huge expectations and the feelings that go in that camp."
Squad: Charlie Faumuina, Ma'a Nonu, Keven Mealamu, Piri Weepu, Ali Williams, Tony Woodcock, Sam Cane, Aaron Cruden, Richard Kahui, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Brodie Retallick, Ben Tameifuna, Sonny Bill Williams, Beauden Barrett, Cory Jane, Julian Savea, Brad Shields, Conrad Smith, Victor Vito, Dan Carter, Wyatt Crockett, Israel Dagg, Andy Ellis, Ben Franks, Owen Franks, Richie McCaw, Kieran Read, Luke Romano, Luke Whitelock, Sam Whitelock, Tamati Ellison, Andrew Hore, Aaron Smith, Ben Smith, Adam Thomson.