Blues stars new faces in ABs training squad
Young Blues stars Frank Halai, Steven Luatua, Charles Piutau and Francis Saili have been included in the All Blacks wider training group.
Other uncapped players among the 38 invited to the two camps in Mt Maunganui are Chiefs prop Ben Afeaki, the Hurricanes trio of TJ Perenara, Brad Shields and Jeff Toomaga-Allen, and the Crusaders duo of Dominic Bird and Tom Taylor.
Clearly the rise of the Blues has impressed the All Blacks selectors.
Luatua has been a dominant force in their loose forwards while the other three newcomers have been effective in a free-wheeling backline.
Halai has been a standout wing and fullback Piutau looks dangerous any time he touches the ball.
Saili, who can play second-five or centre, gets a chance to impress in the troublesome midfield area where the stocks are thinning through injury.
Rene Ranger, another versatile Blues back, is also in the mix.
Perenara is rewarded for his impressive comeback at halfback after last year's injury setback.
Afeaki and Toomaga-Allen are the props on the rise while Bird is in the same category in the locking department.
Shields was in this same squad last year without getting further in a year when the All Blacks used nine new players.
There are few surprises in this latest squad with coach Steve Hansen's established All Blacks in the mix and sure to form the basis of his starting XV.
There are just three hookers - Keven Mealamu, Andrew Hore and Dane Coles - despite injury and form worries in this department.
Hansen said the two camps would give the All Blacks management team a valuable head start in its early on-field preparations for the three-test home series against France next month.
"The camps will give us the opportunity to prepare a foundation on which we can grow our game throughout the Steinlager Series," Hansen said.
"As they did last year, it will also give us a small window of opportunity to introduce some young players into the ways of the All Blacks and allow both these players and All Blacks management to get to know each other a little better."
Hansen said that while the bulk of the squad to play France would come from the 38 players going to the camps, it didn't necessarily mean players not attending were out of the picture.
He stressed players' form would be continually monitored until the announcement of the All Blacks squad and selection changes made, if required.
The champion Chiefs only have six players in the squad while the Hurricanes and Crusaders both have nine. The Blues have eight players and the struggling Highlanders six
The squad for the French series will be named on June 2.
The first training camp runs from Sunday to next Tuesday. The second camp runs from May 26 to May 28.
The Highlanders players named will not attend the first camp as they are overseas.
Three players are missing from the All Blacks squad that toured Europe at the end of last year.
Blues prop Charlie Faumuina and Hurricanes wing Cory Jane are both injured. Highlanders midfield back Tamati Ellison has only just returned from injury but has signed a contract to return to Japan after the Super Rugby season and there appears to be a move to look to the future in this key area.
All Blacks wider training squad:
Blues: Frank Halai, Steven Luatua, Keven Mealamu, Charles Piutau, Rene Ranger, Francis Saili, Piri Weepu and Ali Williams.
Chiefs: Ben Afeaki, Sam Cane, Aaron Cruden, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Liam Messam and Brodie Retallick.
Hurricanes: Beauden Barrett, Dane Coles, Ben Franks, TJ Perenara, Julian Savea, Brad Shields, Conrad Smith, Jeff Toomaga-Allen and Victor Vito.
Crusaders: Dominic Bird, Daniel Carter, Wyatt Crockett, Israel Dagg, Owen Franks, Kieran Read, Luke Romano, Tom Taylor and Samuel Whitelock.
Highlanders: Hosea Gear, Andrew Hore, Ma'a Nonu, Aaron Smith, Ben Smith and Tony Woodcock.