Key takeaways from the first All Blacks squad of 2021

Few major gripes or grumbles can be found with Ian Foster's first All Blacks squad of the year that sprinkles the old with the new and welcomes back several headline figures.

When naming a 36-man squad for a campaign expected to feature 15 Tests this season, it's more about who did not make the cut.

As with any All Blacks squad, even one of this extended size, disappointment will always be evident given New Zealand rugby's depth. That's not true of all areas, however, with the midfield in particular set for a serious examination this season. Yet the stacked loose forwards and outside backs could not cater to everyone.

Tongan-born Crusaders wing/centre Leicester Fainga'anuku was one on the cusp to miss out. Fainga'anuku's power, versatility and finishing prowess impressed as he nailed down a starting spot with the Crusaders. The 21-year-old's time is sure to come but, for now at least, he missed out to 10-Test Crusaders teammate George Bridge, who barely featured this season after six months out following pectoral surgery and more recently having his appendix removed.

Foster also noted that while Rieko Ioane and Brayndon Ennor have been selected as midfielders, they are both left-sided players equally comfortable on the wing.

On that note, Highlanders left wing Jona Nareki was another unlucky contender after forming a brilliant combination with Aaron Smith to claim four tries and beat 23 defenders in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.

Crusaders loose forward Cullen Grace, who played one Test off the bench against the Wallabies in 2020, and Blues prop Alex Hodgman were other notable omissions from last year's squad while Chiefs prop Aidan Ross went close, too.

Grace was ultimately squeezed out by Crusaders teammate Ethan Blackadder, the son of former All Blacks lock Todd, following his standout season on the blindside.

The main initial talking points surround the five rookies - Blues halfback Finlay Christie, Chiefs midfielder Quinn Tupaea, Crusaders prop George Bower, Blackadder and Highlanders prop Ethan de Groot in a squad that will be captained by Sam Whitelock in Sam Cane's absence.

Of those, Tupaea has the most to gain.

Midfield

The All Blacks midfield is a muddle at present. Jack Goodhue has been ruled out for the season after an ACL injury and Ngani Laumape is departing for France. Anton Lienert-Brown's minor elbow surgery takes him out of contention for the first two Tests against Tonga and Fiji next month, too, further exposing the lack of established depth.

David Havili has earned a recall - four years after playing his three Tests - after switching from fullback to second-five with the Crusaders.

For the first two Tests of the year Havili and Tupaea are the All Blacks' only fit No. 12s - unless Jordie Barrett is used there - and they both represent a major shift in their subtler skills rather than power.

With Ioane and Ennor exclusively centre/wing options, the door is open for the 22-year-old Tupaea to make the most of his late elevation from the New Zealand Maori squad.

"Quinn is really good at what he does," Foster said. "He'll have a bit to learn. It's good to be able to back a young player who is confident in what his strengths are. With his running, offloading and ability to create he doesn't lack confidence."

Front row

Another rookie with the potential to push through the ranks is 22-year-old Southland prop de Groot. With incumbent props Joe Moody and Ofa Tuungafasi sidelined the All Blacks were always going to need new faces in the front-row.

Crusaders prop Bower re-joins the team after being called in as cover last year without playing a match, but there is a degree of excitement around de Groot, who scored two tries against the Waratahs in Dunedin to highlight his ball-carrying efforts.

"Ethan was someone who caught our eye at the start of the season," All Blacks assistant coach John Plumtree said. "Towards the end of the season I started to watch him closely and loved some of the stuff he was doing. Clearly Clarke Dermody did a great job with him, got him fitter, his work-rate went up and all of a sudden the impact he made was greater.

"He fits the profile of the big loosehead we need. We're sure we can improve him in the scrummaging department over the next few weeks. I'm looking forward to seeing how he develops."

Brodie and Beaudy return

New faces always attract headlines but, in many ways, it doesn't get more significant than welcoming back Brodie Retallick and Beauden Barrett.

While Barrett featured for the All Blacks last year he then skipped Super Rugby and departed to Japan. He's since made it clear he wants to challenge Richie Mo'unga for the No. 10 jersey, rather than playing fullback as he did for the past two years with the All Blacks.

Retallick, at his peak, could change the dynamic of the All Blacks pack. He's a lineout weapon, physical enforcer, talisman in one. He lost weight in Japan and will be given time to regain his strength, with he and Barrett likely to be eased back into the Test arena via the bench.

It won't be long, though, before both world-class figures exert their influence.

Other than Barrett, Retallick and Havili the All Blacks also recalled Luke Jacobson, the deceptively skilful Chiefs loose forward who comes off a brilliant Super campaign where he proved his worth at six and eight.

Long season

One Test against Tonga and two versus Fiji aren't expected to put the All Blacks under any form of serious heat next month. With up to 15 Tests on the agenda, though, it promises to be a torrid season. Following the Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship, where the All Blacks host the world champion Springboks over successive weeks, the end of year tour features away Tests against Wales, Ireland and France. Whitelock knows that's no easy task.

"Last year we had six Test matches and challenges in different ways with the way the world was and is. Fifteen Test matches this year - fingers crossed we get to play all of them," the stand-in skipper said.

"You're going to need a lot of players to play 15 brutal Test matches. It doesn't matter who we play against, where they sit in the world rankings or all those sorts of things, it's hard. We've got some great depth here in New Zealand so we can't wait to get out there."

All Blacks squad

Asafo Aumua, Beauden Barrett, Jordie Barrett, Scott Barrett, Ethan Blackadder, George Bower, George Bridge, Finlay Christie, Dane Coles, Ethan De Groot, Braydon Ennor, Shannon Frizell, David Havili, Akira Ioane, Rieko Ioane, Luke Jacobson, Will Jordan, Nepo Laulala, Anton Lienert-Brown, Tyrell Lomax, Damian McKenzie, Richie Mo'unga, Dalton Papali'i, Sevu Reece, Brodie Retallick, Ardie Savea, Aaron Smith, Hoskins Sotutu, Angus Ta'avao, Codie Taylor, Karl Tui'nukuafe, Patrick Tuipulotu, Quinn Tupaea, Tupou Vaa'i, Brad Weber, Sam Whitelock