Steve Hansen has picked three new players in his extended training squad for next month’s Rugby Championship.
Included for the first time in the 34-man squad are Highlanders utility back Richard Buckman and second-row Tom Franklin, as well as Chiefs tighthead Atu Moli.
The versatile Buckman can play at centre, full-back as well as on the wing and was part of the Highlanders team which lifted the 2015 Super Rugby title while teammate Franklin has established himself as a regular in the Highlanders’ boiler house, making over 60 appearances since his debut for the Dunedin-based franchise in 2014. The 26-year-old was also a part of the Maori team that lost to the British and Irish Lions in June.
Still only 22, Moli has just completed his second season in Super Rugby. Able to cover both sides of the scrum, the 20-stone Gisborne-born star captained the Baby Blacks to World Cup glory in 2015.
22-year-old Blues flanker-cum-No. 8 Akira Ioane, brother of Rieko, who trained with the All Blacks squad during the British and Irish Lions series, is the fourth uncapped member of an extremely strong squad.
None of Crusaders coach Scott Robertson’s men are included in the squad as they prepare for this weekend’s Super Rugby final against the Lions in Johannesburg.
Chiefs front-rower Nepo Laulala, who has come back strongly after missing the whole of last season through injury, earns a recall alongside once-capped Hurricanes prop Jeffery Toomaga-Allen.
With both having been left out of the squad for the recent series against the British and Irish Lions, the pair will be looking to impress.
Hansen has also invited powerful Hurricanes midfielder Charlie Ngatai to the training camp in Christchurch. The 26- year old has struggled with concussion problems since earning his only All Black cap against Samoa in 2015.
Speaking to the All Blacks’ official website (via Planet Rugby), Hansen explained that he and his backroom staff had decided to take advantage of the Crusaders players’ absence to ‘find out a little bit more’ about the talented trio.
“Rather than waste the opportunity we’ve seized it with both hands and brought in people that we want to find a little bit more about, other people that we think aren’t far from getting into the squad.”
Saying that they were ‘looking to the future’ in the tighthead area, Hansen also stated that the inclusion of Moli would be a ‘good opportunity’ for the youngster to work with renowned All Blacks scrummaging guru Mike Cron.
“Atu Moli is a young tighthead prop and we’ve just lost Charlie [Faumuina] so we’re looking to the future and its a good opportunity for him to come in and work with someone like Mike Cron on the scrummaging side of his game and then, after the camp, we can know a little bit more about him.”
While the former Wales coach admitted that he didn’t know a lot personally about fan favourite Buckman, affectionately known as the ‘barracuda’, but that he and his staff had been impressed by his performances.
“We don’t know a lot about him from a personal point of view. We haven’t had him in any of our camps before, we’ve seen him play and we’ve liked what we’ve seen.”
Hansen will name his final squad for the Rugby Championship on August 7.
The reigning holders of the tournament, New Zealand, will be looking to win a fifth title in six years under Hansen’s leadership.
And with such a deep pool of talent in their squad, it would be a brave man who bets against them pocketing another Rugby Championship title come October.
They kick-off their campaign against Australia in Sydney on August 19.