One surprise exclusion in All Blacks squad
Steven Luatua has been dropped from the All Blacks in the only truly contentious selection among coach Steve Hansen's 31 man squad named today for a three test series against England.
The Blues loose forward was one of five players cut from the wider training squad that had attended two camps this month in Christchurch and Wellington.
The other players to miss the final cut are Hurricanes lock Jeremy Thrush, Crusaders loose forward Luke Whitelock, and hookers Liam Coltman (Highlanders) and Nathan Harris (Chiefs).
Luatua's place has gone to Hurricanes No 8 Victor Vito, who has hit a rich vein of form after a late start to Super Rugby due to a knee injury.
Vito's selection completes a comeback after the 27-year-old was dumped last June after a substandard performance against France in New Plymouth.
Luatua's omission represents a rapid fall from grace.
The 23-year-old was the All Blacks find of the season last year playing 11 tests in his debut international season.
After an injury to incumbent All Blacks blindside Liam Messam, Luatua burst onto the scene with a stand out performance against Australia in Sydney and went onto play a regular role during the remainder of the test season.
However, a lack of fitness this season, coupled with the return of Jerome Kaino at the Blues, has seen Luatua's stocks fall.
He has struggled for starts in Super Rugby and was singled out by Hansen during the camps due to a perceived lack of fitness.
The remainder of the squad to play England is largely as flagged.
Highlanders centre Malakai Fekitoa and Blues lock Patrick Tuipulotu are the two new caps after breakout seasons in Super Rugby, and 48-test veteran Blues loose forward Jerome Kain returns to the national side after two years in Japan.
Hansen has gone with only two hookers in Dane Coles and Keven Mealamu and kept all three of his first five eighths in Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett and Colin Slade.
However, the All Blacks have not abandoned their development of alternative hookers and Harris and Coltman will remain involved in an apprentice capacity.
Harris will assemble with the squad for the first test in Auckland and third test in Hamilton, while Coltman will join the team ahead of the second test in Dunedin.
The Crusaders have the greatest representation in the squad from the five Super Rugby franchises with nine players, followed by the Hurricanes (eight), Blues and Chiefs (five) and Highlanders (three).
Ten of New Zealand's provinces are represented, with eight Canterbury players, seven from Wellington, five from Auckland, two each from Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Manawatu and Hawke's Bay, and one each for North Harbour, Taranaki and Otago.
In announcing his squad, Hansen made a point of refuting suggestions England would not field a competitive side in the first test in Auckland on June 7.
"England have been the most improved side in world rugby in the last two years. Their coach Stuart Lancaster has built depth in his side and a strong culture, so they will be a formidable opponent and one we are very excited about playing,'' he said.
"Those who think England will be fielding a weak side in the first test are completely underestimating the quality of depth in the England squad. Make no mistake, England have a very strong desire and belief that they can win this Series.
"Having said that, so do the All Blacks. We acknowledge that this is going to be a huge challenge but look forward to taking it head on."
A number of players were unavailable for selection due to injury including the Blues duo of midfielder Francis Saili (ankle) and fullback Charles Piutau (knee) and Crusaders lock Luke Romano (ankle), while Crusaders first five-eighth Daniel Carter remains on extended leave.
All Blacks squad:
Wyatt Crockett, Tony Woodcock, Charlie Faumuina, Owen Franks, Ben Franks, Dane Coles, Keven Mealamu, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Dominic Bird, Patrick Tuipulotu, Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw, Liam Messam, Kieran Read, Victor Vito, Sam Cane, Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett, Colin Slade, Ma'a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Malakai Fekitoa, Ryan Crotty, Cory Jane, Julian Savea, Israel Dagg, Ben Smith.