WELLINGTON (Reuters) - All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has recalled fit-again lock Scott Barrett while omitting loose forward Shannon Frizell among five players cut from a trimmed-down 34-man squad for the two tests against Australia.
The world champion All Blacks play their final match of the abridged Rugby Championship against the Wallabies at Perth Stadium on Aug. 10, which also doubles as the first clash of the Bledisloe Cup, the annual series contested between the trans-Tasman nations.
The second Bledisloe Cup match is in Auckland on Aug. 17.
Barrett returns after being sidelined for a month with a broken finger, replacing former World Player of the Year Brodie Retallick, who dislocated his shoulder in the 16-16 draw against South Africa in Wellington last Saturday.
Along with Frizell, Asafo Aumua, Josh Ioane, Dalton Papali’i and Karl Tu’inukuafe have been cut, and the five are now unlikely to feature at the World Cup unless there are injuries.
“They can jump into the mix, but it’s obviously getting harder, isn’t it?” Hansen told reporters on Wednesday.
“Because we are trying to narrow it down. We have got two big games coming up and then we will reflect and get (the squad) down to 31.”
Frizell’s omission, after he started against South Africa in Wellington last Saturday, means Vaea Fifita remains in the race to be the starting blindside flanker in the absence of Liam Squire.
Rookie loose forward Luke Jacobson has retained his place in after making his test debut off the bench in the opening Rugby Championship win over Argentina in Buenos Aires.
Inside centre Sonny Bill Williams, who will turn 34 on Saturday and has struggled with injuries over the past two seasons, has been retained but will be rested for the first Wallabies match.
He emerged unscathed from his return to the test arena against the Springboks but will nonetheless head back to provincial rugby with Counties Manukau for the next two weekends before returning for the Auckland clash.
“We’ve got a lot of respect for Sonny’s playing ability, obviously,” Hansen said.
“We know he can play at this level — the unfortunate thing is he hasn’t played much and we wanted to see him on Saturday be able to cope with the rigors of test football which he did so that’s a big tick.”
Australia, who defeated Argentina 16-10 in Brisbane last week, meet the All Blacks in Western Australia state capital Perth for the first time.
“The Bledisloe Cup is the second most important trophy for us, after the Rugby World Cup, and we’re really looking forward to the next two Tests coming up,” said Hansen.
The defending champion All Blacks are second in the Rugby Championship standings behind South Africa ahead of the final round.
Victory in Perth will see the All Blacks retain the southern hemisphere trophy for a fourth consecutive season if the Springboks lose their final match away to Argentina.
Forwards - Dane Coles, Liam Coltman, Codie Taylor, Owen Franks, Nepo Laulala, Joe Moody, Atu Moli, Angus Ta’avao, Ofa Tuungafasi, Scott Barrett, Jackson Hemopo, Patrick Tuipulotu, Samuel Whitelock, Sam Cane, Vaea Fifita, Luke Jacobson, Kieran Read, Ardie Savea, Matt Todd
Backs - TJ Perenara, Aaron Smith, Brad Weber, Beauden Barrett, Richie Mo’unga, Jack Goodhue, Ngani Laumape, Anton Lienert-Brown, Sonny Bill Williams, Braydon Ennor, Jordie Barrett, George Bridge, Rieko Ioane, Sevu Reece, Ben Smith
Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Rory Carroll/Amlan Chakraborty