WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Sam Whitelock will captain the All Blacks in the absence of the injured Kieran Read when the world champions host France in a three-test series next month.
The 96-test lock, New Zealand’s player of the year in 2017, was named stand-in skipper when coach Steve Hansen announced a 33-man squad for the series on Sunday.
“He’s one half of the best locking combination in the world and one of the best players on and off the park,” Hansen said.
“He has a cool head under pressure and the support of the players and management.”
With number eight Read recovering from back surgery and unlikely to return until July at the earliest, loose forwards Jordan Taufua and Shannon Frizell were among three new faces in the squad.
Liam Squire or Sam Cane are most likely to replace Read at the back of the scrum but with France naming a weakened squad for the tests in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin, there may be opportunities to impress from the bench.
Scrumhalf Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi was the third new face in the squad, the 23-year-old Waikato Chief slotting in as back-up behind Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara.
Richie Mo’unga, who is still uncapped, was again preferred to Lima Sopoaga as the third string flyhalf behind incumbent Beauden Barrett and Damian McKenzie.
There was no place in the squad for prolific Wellington Hurricanes winger Ben Lam despite his 14 Super Rugby tries this season.
Fullbacks Nehe Milner-Skudder and Ben Smith, both returning after missing November’s tour of Europe, were included with Jordi Barrett, Waisake Naholo and Rieko Ioane as the outside backs.
Dane Coles is still unavailable through injury and Nathan Harris’s partner is expecting a child during the series so Liam Coltman will also join up with the squad as additional cover for Codie Taylor at hooker.
Loose forward Akira Ioane, who would walk into the squads of most test teams and must consider himself unfortunate not to be in the 33 given the back-row experimentation, will also join the squad for further development.
France face the All Blacks at Eden Park in Auckland on June 9 with tests in Wellington and Dunedin on the following two Saturdays.
Forwards: Owen Franks, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Joe Moody, Tim Perry, Jeffrey Toomaga-Allen, Codie Taylor, Nathan Harris, Sam Whitelock (captain), Scott Barrett, Brodie Retallick, Liam Squire, Vaea Fifita, Shannon Frizell, Sam Cane, Jordan Taufua, Ardie Savea, Luke Whitelock.
Backs: Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Beauden Barrett, Damian McKenzie, Richie Mo’unga, Ryan Crotty, Sonny Bill Williams, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ngani Laumape, Jack Goodhue, Jordi Barrett, Waisake Naholo, Rieko Ioane, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Ben Smith.
Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Ed Osmond