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WELLINGTON (AFP) – Veteran scrumhalf Piri Weepu has been dumped from the All Blacks for the Rugby Championship, with the squad named on Sunday including one new face and marking the return of captain Richie McCaw.
Weepu, whose 71 Tests make him New Zealand's second-most experienced scrumhalf behind Justin Marshall, has been forced to make way for newcomer TJ Perenara for the series involving South Africa, Australia and Argentina.
Victor Vito is also missing from the All Blacks squad that swept the three-Test series against France in June, making way for Steve Lautua, while Rene Ranger declared himself unavailable for family reasons.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said it was a tough call on Weepu, but it was time to blood the 21-year-old Hurricanes number nine Perenara.
"He has been impressive over the last couple of years and we feel the timing is right to now bring him into the squad," Hansen said.
"On the flipside, it's always difficult and disappointing for players when they miss out on selection, particularly for players like Piri and Victor who have been involved in the team for a number of years."
Two other players who had minor roles in the French Tests, Matt Todd and Ben Afeaki have also been excluded from the smaller squad assembled for the Rugby Championship.
The return of the 116-Test McCaw was expected despite his lack of match fitness after his six-month sabbatical and playing a total of just 25 minutes off the bench for the Canterbury Crusaders in the Super 15 playoffs.
McCaw takes back the captaincy from backrower Kieran Read who successfully led the side against France.
Hansen said he had looked for player versatility in naming his squad to defend the championship trophy they won last year and expected a step up from where they were against France two months ago.
"We will now be looking to build a greater understanding and greater execution of the detail within our game structure -- and there is no better place to test yourself than in this competition," he said.
"South Africa, Australia and Argentina will be even better than they were last year and we will have to be as well."
The All Blacks opening Rugby Championship match is against Australia in Sydney on August 17.
Forwards: Dane Coles (Wellington Hurricanes), Andrew Hore (Otago Highlanders), Keven Mealamu (Auckland Blues), Wyatt Crockett (Canterbury Crusaders), Charlie Faumuina (Blues), Ben Franks (Hurricanes), Owen Franks (Crusaders), Tony Woodcock (Highlanders), Brodie Retallick (Waikato Chiefs), Luke Romano (Crusaders), Samuel Whitelock (Crusaders), Sam Cane (Chiefs), Steven Luatua (Blues), Richie McCaw (captain) (Crusaders), Liam Messam (Chiefs), Kieran Read (Crusaders)
Backs: Tawera Kerr-Barlow (Chiefs), TJ Perenara (Hurricanes), Aaron Smith (Highlanders), Beauden Barrett (Hurricanes), Daniel Carter (Crusaders), Aaron Cruden (Chiefs), Ma'a Nonu (Highlanders), Conrad Smith (Hurricanes), Israel Dagg (Crusaders), Charles Piutau (Blues), Julian Savea (Hurricanes), Ben Smith (Highlanders).
The squad has been bolstered by an additional three players -- Jeremy Thrush (Hurricanes), Francis Saili (Blues) and Frank Halai (Blues) -- who will train with the team at the start of each Test week.
Prop Joe Moody (Crusaders) has also been brought in as injury cover for Crockett who will miss the start of the Rugby Championship with a knee injury.