All Blacks name Rugby Championship squad
Dan Carter's back, as is Charles Piutau, but it's the selection of Sam Cane ahead of unlucky Crusader Matt Todd that might be considered the chief talking point of Steven Hansen's Rugby Championship squad named today.
Crusaders bench prop Joe Moody has also been called in to cover for the crocked Tony Woodcock (shoulder) who will miss the start of the competition, while an injured Victor Vito makes way for the return of rejuvenated Blues loose forward Steven Luatua.
In a largely predictable 31-strong squad that will look to extend the All Blacks' perfect record in the competition starting in Sydney on August 16, available-again Carter and Piutau return at the expense of Crusaders backs Colin Slade and Ryan Crotty.
Carter, the world record holder for test points, was not available for the June series while he rounded out his six-month sabbatical, while Piutau - one of the finds of last season's historic perfect year - had been sidelined with a knee injury.
Carter has quickly found form post the June window playing at second five-eighths for the Crusaders in their charge to the Super Rugby final, while Piutau confirmed his readiness with a couple of sharp outings for the Blues at the end of their campaign.
The return of both Carter and Piutau would have been a no-brainer for coach Steve Hansen who understands how important those two men are in his ambitions over the next season or two. Carter, when fit, remains the All Blacks' premier playmaker and his recent reminder that he retains the ability to slot in at No 12 makes him an even more valuable figure.
Piutau also has significant utility value with an ability to cover fullback, wing and centre, and provides much-needed depth behind the likes of Ben Smith, Julian Savea and Israel Dagg in the back three.
Cane's selection, though, might raise an eyebrow or two after he missed the back half of the Chiefs' season with a knee injury. The 22-year-old replaces Todd as backup openside, and must be considered a little fortunate to do so.
Todd has been in excellent form for the Crusaders as they have reached their 11th Super Rugby final, keeping Richie McCaw at No 6 for the knockout matches. It's a big call to replace him with someone who hasn't played since he went down with a knee injury on May 9.
Luatua's full return, with Vito not considered because of injury, comes on the back of a strong finish to his Super Rugby season.
The 23-year-old Aucklander was omitted from the original squad named for the June series against England, but gained a reprieve when he was brought in to cover for Kieran Read.
Vito had had a strong season for the Hurricanes, and was preferred ahead of the struggling Blues loose forward for the England series.
But Luatua's form over an impressive end to the Super Rugby season saw him answer the challenge of the All Blacks selectors, and his inclusion in this squad is reward for that.
Hansen said it had been a difficult task trimming the squad down to 31.
"In doing so, we had to leave out players who are performing at a very, very high level and they could consider themselves unlucky not to be selected," he said. "But while we feel for those guys, unfortunately, we have to make the hard decisions."
Back-to-back Bledisloes to open the competition would again prove a challenge for the All Blacks, Hansen added.
"It's going to be another intense competition. South Africa and Australia are ranked second and third in the world and both had successful June test series, while Argentina will again bring the physicality and passion which we know they are renowned for. They will also bring the knowledge and experience which comes from playing in the Rugby Championship and we are expecting them to improve further."
The squad includes three Highlanders players, eight Crusaders, seven Hurricanes, five Chiefs and eight Blues.
Chiefs and Bay of Plenty hooker Nathan Harris will assemble with the All Blacks for the domestic part of the season as part of his ongoing "apprenticeship".
Luke Romano was also not considered as he recovers from a broken bone in his leg.
The All Blacks squad will assemble on Wednesday for a two-day camp on Auckland's North Shore minus the eight players in the Crusaders, who will be preparing for this weekend's Super Rugby final.
In their absence, the following players will be brought into the camp: hookers Harris and the Hurricanes' Motu Matu'u; props Pauliasi Manu from the Chiefs and Highlander Kane Hames; Hurricanes lock Jeremy Thrush; loose forwards Liam Squire from the Chiefs and Shane Christie from the Highlanders.
All Blacks squad for Rugby Championship:
Forwards: Dane Coles, Keven Mealamu; Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Ben Franks, Owen Franks, Tony Woodcock/Joe Moody; Dominic Bird, Brodie Retallick, Patrick Tuipulotu, Sam Whitelock; Richie McCaw (capt), Sam Cane, Jerome Kaino, Steven Luatua, Liam Messam, Kieran Read.
Backs: Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara; Beauden Barrett, Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden; Malakai Fekitoa, Ma'a Nonu, Conrad Smith; Israel Dagg, Cory Jane, Charles Piutau, Julia Savea, Ben Smith.