The All Blacks have named four bolters — but surprisingly left out a fifth — from their squad for the tests against Tonga and Fiji, the first of the year.
Highlanders prop Ethan de Groot, Crusaders loose forward Ethan Blackadder, Blues halfback Finlay Christie, and Chiefs midfielder Quinn Tupaea were all named in Ian Foster's 36-man squad for the three-test series next month but there was no room for versatile Crusaders back and one of the season's Super Rugby standouts Leicester Fainga'anuku.
The squad also sees the return of 2019 All Blacks loose forward Luke Jacobson and prop Angus Ta'avao, midfielders David Havili, who last played for the national side in 2017, Braydon Ennor, and lock Brodie Retallick, who recently returned from a playing stint in Japan.
"Firstly, on behalf of the selectors, I want to congratulate all players selected for this squad, especially, the new All Blacks, Ethan de Groot and Ethan Blackadder, and Finlay and Quinn," said Foster.
"It's an incredibly special day for them and their families and we look forward to catching up with them when we get into camp this week. There will be players who will be disappointed at missing out on selection and we feel for them as well."
Sam Whitelock, the 122-test veteran, will captain the All Blacks in the absence of Sam Cane, who is expected to miss most of the season after suffering a chest injury in April.
"Sam Whitelock is the right man for the job," Foster said. "He's hugely experienced, not just as a player but also as a leader, and he has great connections with Sam Cane and the leaders in the team as well. Our current leadership group is working hard together and we know Sam will lead the team superbly in the [series]."
Several other players were also not considered for selection due to injury, including props Ofa Tuungafasi and Joe Moody, midfielder Jack Goodhue and Highlanders halfback Folau Fakatava.
Anton Lienert-Brown has been included in the squad despite undergoing elbow surgery at the weekend. The 26-year-old is expected to miss the opening match against Tonga at Mt Smart Stadium on July 3 and the first outing against Fiji in Dunedin the following week.
He could return for the second test against Fiji in Hamilton on July 17.
The injuries to Goodhue and Lienert-Brown, as well as Ngani Laumape's decision to head offshore, will seriously challenge the All Blacks' midfield depth — with Rieko Ioane, Havili, Ennor, and Tupaea, a former New Zealand Schools captain, to slug it out for the No12 and No13 jerseys.
De Groot, 22, has been a highlight of the Highlanders' campaigns this year, which ended in a defeat to the Blues in the Super Rugby Transtasman final at Eden Park on Saturday night. Blackadder is the son of former All Blacks captain Todd Blackadder, and Scottish-born Christie is selected as the third-choice halfback — ahead of TJ Perenara.
Foster said the All Blacks had a clear goal for 2021 to be No1 in the world again.
"This is going to involve hard work and a commitment to our preparation, whilst at the same time expanding our depth, with an eye to the future," he said.
The team will assemble for a three-day camp in South Auckland later this week before heading into the Tongan test week.
Asafo Aumua, Beauden Barrett, Jordie Barrett, Scott Barrett, Ethan Blackadder, George Bower, George Bridge, Finlay Christie, Dane Coles, Ethan De Groot, Braydon Ennor, Shannon Frizell, David Havili, Akira Ioane, Rieko Ioane, Luke Jacobson, Will Jordan, Nepo Laulala, Anton Lienert-Brown, Tyrell Lomax, Damian McKenzie, Richie Mo'unga, Dalton Papali'i, Sevu Reece, Brodie Retallick, Ardie Savea, Aaron Smith, Hoskins Sotutu, Angus Ta'avao, Codie Taylor, Karl Tui'nukuafe, Patrick Tuipulotu, Quinn Tupaea, Tupou Vaa'i, Brad Weber, Sam Whitelock