Recalled flanker Steven Luatua has responded to coach Steve Hansen's "wake-up call" by winning back his place in the All Blacks squad.
Luatua had an impressive rookie season for the All Blacks in 2013 when he made 11 test appearances, but he reported back for Super Rugby duty in less than tip-top shape.
He was dropped for the All Blacks' three-test series against England in June and given a blunt message to improve his fitness.
But the Blues backrower has been given a reprieve after being named for the Rugby Championship squad as a replacement for Wellington backrower Victor Vito, who is out with a bulging disc in his neck.
Hansen said Luatua had come back "a different athlete".
"It's a fitness thing that's changed, I guess that's set by his attitude," said Hansen before being asked: "how fit is he?"
"Fitter than you and me," Hansen quipped. "He's improved immensely in his aerobic area to the point where we are happy to select him. He's back where he should be."
Luatua, by his own admission, fronted for the Super competition "not as well as should be, and he paid the price for that", Hansen said.
"If you care enough about the jersey, and most people who have been in there do, then it is a wake-up call. But it's one that a lot of athletes have had."
Hansen said Jerome Kaino faced a similar situation in 2004 when the All Blacks "took him the UK and he wasn't ready, he wasn't fit enough. He spent some time on the sideline, but he came back and became the best No 6 in world rugby.
"I think Steven's got that ability as well. He can come back and be a very good athlete, and a very good All Black."
Hansen said the All Blacks were hopeful Vito's injury would settle down with a few weeks' rest and were confident Crusaders lock Luke Romano was also on track to return later this season after breaking a leg in May.
Auckland outside back Charles Piutau returns to the Rugby Championship squad after missing the England series with a knee injury.
Hansen said Piutau was being primarily seen as a wing, although he could also cover fullback, and may be a midfield option later in his career.
- The Press
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