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Ian Foster has included seven uncapped players in his first squad as All Blacks head coach, naming 35 players Sunday as uncertainty continues over the possibility of any tests being played this year.

Locks Tupou Va’ai and Quinten Strange, prop Alex Hodgman, backrowers Hoskins Sotutu and Cullen Grace and outside backs Caleb Clarke and Will Jordan were named for the first time as Foster refreshed a New Zealand squad hit by injuries and retirements following last year’s World Cup.

Hodgman, who played age-group rugby for both Fiji and New Zealand and has played Super Rugby for the Christchurch-based Crusaders and Auckland-based Blues, was the most surprising selection.

Sotutu, an Auckland-born 22-year-old of English and Fijian heritage, had attracted the interest of England coach Eddie Jones as well as Fiji mentor Vern Cotter before electing to join the All Blacks.

The selection of three newcomers at lock was expected because of the absence of several senior players; Brodie Retallick has been released on sabbatical and Scott Barrett is injured.

The call-ups of the Blues pair Sotutu and Clarke and the Crusaders’ Jordan were also expected after their outstanding performances in Super Rugby Aotearoa.

Hooker Asafo Aumua, who played two matches for New Zealand in 2017, prop Tyrel Lomax, who played one in 2018, and backrower Akira Ioane who played one in 2017, have been recalled.

“We’re hugely excited at the caliber of the players selected for this All Blacks squad of 2020,” Foster said. “It’s been a great process working through the selections and I’ve really enjoyed working with (John Plumtree) as part of the new selectors group.”

Foster said the coaches and selector Grant Fox are “excited as everyone at the rugby we have seen in what has been an incredibly difficult year for everyone.

“The result is that we can now announce a team that is rich in experience and a little battle-hardened after the Rugby World Cup, but forward looking with the inclusion of a number of new players. We’re delighted with the balance of the group and we look forward to whatever the challenges of 2020 throw at us.”

There is still some doubt the All Blacks will play any test rugby this year. The four-nation Rugby Championship, due to be played in New Zealand in November and December, seems increasingly unlikely to take place after an outbreak of COVID-19 in the Argentina team.

Doubts also remain around a Bledisloe Cup series between New Zealand and Australia because of outbreaks in both countries.

“Like everyone else we’re impatient to know what is happening but we fully understand all the variables at play and we remain confident that there’ll be something for fans to look forward to in the not-too-distant future,” Foster said.

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