NZ coach Hansen cuts 5 players ahead of Bledisloe Cup tests

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The group of All Blacks players entrusted to defend the Rugby World Cup took clearer shape Wednesday when coach Steve Hansen cut his 39-man Rugby Championship squad to 34 for two Bledisloe Cup tests against Australia.

Hansen cut hooker Asafo Aumua, flyhalf Josh Ioane, prop Karl Tu'inukuafe and backrowers Dalton Papali'i and Shannon Frizell from his larger squad. Those players now appear unlikely to feature in the World Cup, barring injuries.

The New Zealand squad will be further cut to 31 players for the World Cup after the tests against Australia at Perth on Aug. 11 and at Auckland on Aug. 17.

Prop Nepo Laulala and center Sonny Bill Williams will play for Counties Manukau in the first round of New Zealand's provincial championship on Saturday. Laulala will then join the All Blacks squad in Perth, Williams will play for Counties Manukau again on Aug. 10 before returning for the Auckland test.

The All Blacks are now under pressure to produce a convincing performance in the Bledisloe Cup series after substandard performances in Rugby Championship tests against Argentina and South Africa.

"The Bledisloe Cup is the second-most important trophy for us after the Rugby World Cup," Hansen said. "Bledisloe Cup tests are always massive tests.

"We know that the Wallabies will be confident after their win over Argentina and desperate to win this first match, so we're looking forward to getting to Perth and getting into our test preparation."

The All Blacks opened the Rugby Championship with a 20-16 away win over Argentina, and then conceded a late try in a 16-16 draw with South Africa at home last weekend.

It was a solid hit out for both teams ahead of their next match — a World Cup group game at Yokohama on Sept. 21.

The trip across the Tasman for the Bledisloe Cup will be considerably longer than usual for the New Zealanders, who will play a test in Perth on Australia's west coast for the first time. Hansen said it would be a time for fine-tuning and team bonding.

"Two weeks together will give us solid preparation toward growing our game, understanding and getting our execution honed, so that's exciting," he said.


New Zealand squad: 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, T.J. 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.


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