WELLINGTON, July 16 (Reuters) - Factbox on New Zealand ahead of the southern hemisphere’s Rugby Championship:
World ranking: 1
Last year: 1st
Coach: Steve Hansen
Captain: Kieran Read
The All Blacks enter as favourites to add a 17th title, but fans in rugby-mad New Zealand recognise that the results over the next month count for little with the Rugby World Cup in Japan on the horizon.
Coach Steve Hansen has already said his focus for the southern hemisphere championship is making sure that he gets the selections and tactics right for the global showpiece in a little over two months’ time.
Hansen named an extended squad of 39 players for the opening two matches of the Rugby Championship to test his less experienced players against the Pumas in Buenos Aires and rest the majority of the Super-Rugby winning Canterbury Crusaders.
He is likely to name his top side, with a host of Crusaders forwards recalled, for the July 27 showdown with the Springboks in Wellington, which will double up as an important marker for the sides’ Pool B World Cup opener in Yokohama on Sept. 21.
Hansen has selected a mostly young and fast backline for the tournament and by then should have an idea on whether players like George Bridge, Braydon Ennor and Sevu Reece have done enough to make the reduced squad of 34 for the trip to Perth.
His biggest selection issue, however, will be with the loose forwards where no one has done enough to usurp incumbent Liam Squire, who ruled himself out of the Championship due to a lack of match fitness, in the blindside flanker role.
While Squire and the injured Ryan Crotty and Scott Barrett were not named for the Rugby Championship, it is highly likely all three will be in Hansen’s World Cup squad, which makes the battle for places much tighter.
Backs: Ben Smith, Rieko Ioane, Jordie Barrett, George Bridge, Sevu Reece, Braydon Ennor, Sonny Bill Williams, Jack Goodhue, Anton Leinert-Brown, Ngani Laumape, Beauden Barrett, Richie Mo’unga, Josh Ioane, Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara, Brad Weber.
Forwards: Keiran Read (captain), Ardie Savea, Sam Cane, Vaea Fifita, Shannon Frizell, Matt Todd, Jackson Hemopo, Luke Jacobson, Dalton Papalii, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Patrick Tuipulotu, Joe Moody, Owen Franks, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Nepo Laulala, Ofa Tuungafasi, Atu Moli, Angus Ta’avao, Codie Taylor, Dane Coles, Asafo Aumua, Liam Coltman.
FIXTURES (kickoff GMT)
July 20 v Argentina, Buenos Aires (1805)
July 27 v South Africa, Wellington (0735)
Aug. 10 v Australia, Perth (1000) (Writing by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)