The Blues' Super Rugby resurgence bore fruit for their players today, with four youngsters called into the All Blacks camps to prepare for next month's Tests against France.
While compelling form means the selections come as little
surprise, the promotion of fullback Charles Piutau, wing Frank
Halai and centre Francis Saili, along with flanker Steven Luatua,
were a feature of the 38 players named for the two camps later this
month (May 19-21 and May 26-28) at Mt Maunganui.
The Auckland-based franchise are currently sitting second in Super Rugby's NZ conference and fifth overall - firmly in playoff contention - under new coach Sir John Kirwan and playing a brand of rugby that has also seen centre Rene Ranger return to national-team reckoning after a three-year absence.
They join Blues veterans Keven Mealamu, Piri Weepu and Ali Williams in a squad that features nine players each from the Hurricanes and Crusaders.
Prop Jeffrey Toomaga-Allen and halfback TJ Perenara are the bolters from Wellington, while lock Dominic Bird gets his chance from the Christchurch-based outfit.
The other newcomer is Chiefs prop Ben Afeaki, while Hurricanes loose forward Brad Shields and Chiefs halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow return from last year's wider squad.
Richie McCaw's heir apparent, Sam Cane of the Chiefs, is the
only genuine openside flanker named and although Victor Vito and
Liam Messam can cover seven at a pinch, Matt Todd of the Crusaders
and Luke Braid of the Blues can consider themselves unlucky.
Hooker Hika Elliot also fits into this category with Dane Coles, Andrew Hore and Keven Mealamu struggling with form and injury.
Hore and the other five Highlanders named will not attend the first camp as they are currently overseas.
Head coach Steve Hansen said the two camps would give the All Blacks management a valuable head-start in its early on-field preparations for the three Tests against France next month.
"The camps will give us the opportunity to prepare a foundation on which we can grow our game throughout the series.
"As 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 while the bulk of the Test squad would come from the 38 players going to the camps, it didn't necessarily mean those players not attending were out of the picture.
He said players' form would be continually monitored up until the announcement of the All Blacks squad and selection changes made, if required.
The squad for the Test series will be named on June 2, and the
All Blacks play France at Auckland on June 9, Christchurch on June
15 and New Plymouth on June 22.
All Blacks training squad
Utilities: Ben Smith (Highlanders), Tom Taylor (Crusaders)
Fullbacks: Israel Dagg (Crusaders), Charles Piutau (Blues)
Wingers: Hosea Gear (Highlanders), Frank Halai (Blues), Julian Savea (Hurricanes)
Centres: Ma'a Nonu (Highlanders), Rene Ranger (Blues), Francis Saili (Blues), Conrad Smith (Hurricanes)
First-fives: Beauden Barrett (Hurricanes), Daniel Carter (Crusaders), Aaron Cruden (Chiefs)
Halfbacks: Tawera Kerr-Barlow (Chiefs), TJ Perenara (Hurricanes), Aaron Smith (Highlanders), Piri Weepu (Blues)
Loose forwards: Sam Cane (Chiefs), Steven Luatua (Blues), Liam Messam (Chiefs), Kieran Read (Crusaders), Brad Shields (Hurricanes), Victor Vito (Hurricanes)
Locks: Dominic Bird (Crusaders), Brodie Retallick (Chiefs), Luke Romano (Crusaders), Samuel Whitelock (Crusaders), Ali Williams (Blues)
Props: Ben Afeaki (Chiefs), Wyatt Crockett (Crusaders), Ben Franks (Hurricanes), Owen Franks (Crusaders), Jeff Toomaga-Allen (Hurricanes), Tony Woodcock (Highlanders)
Hookers: Dane Coles (Hurricanes), Andrew Hore (Highlanders), Keven Mealamu (Blues),