NEW ZEALAND coach Steve Hansen was adamant All Blacks supporters will see the Piri Weepu they "know and love" after he included the scrum-half, somewhat controversially, in his 30-man squad to take on Ireland.
Weepu was a key contributor to the All Blacks' World Cup triumph last year but his form in this year's Super 15 as part of a struggling Blues outfit has been mixed at best, while he has also had to cope with sustained criticism over his physical conditioning.
There were widespread calls for Crusaders No 9 Andy Ellis to be picked instead but Hansen made no apologies for including Weepu along with fellow out-of-form Blues players, second-row Ali Williams and centre Ma'a Nonu.
"He has a competitive spirit and the bigger the occasion, the bigger he steps up," said Hansen of Weepu. "He's proven that and hence why we've stuck with him. He's working particularly hard at getting fitter. He acknowledges he let himself down in that area. But we're confident he will produce the goods.
"We set him some strong targets and he's met those and he's now in better condition than he was in the World Cup. He's very highly motivated and that gives us the confidence that we'll get the Piri Weepu that we know and love."
Weepu did not feature for the Blues against the Chiefs on Saturday when he was anxious to prove his worth to the All Blacks' selectors.
However, this was revealed to be a precautionary measure by coach Pat Lam after he picked up a hamstring strain in the warm-up to the match.
"I was gutted I didn't get out there but I'm happy they had to make that tough decision," said Weepu. "I said to Pat, 'you were lucky you came down and told me otherwise I would have gone psycho in the changing room!'"
Hansen said that, as well as the requirement for proven experience, he was mindful of the need to build towards the 2015 World Cup and, on that basis, he named seven uncapped players -- prop Ben Tameifuna, flanker Sam Cane, second-rows Brodie Retallick and Luke Romano, scrum-half Aaron Smith, out-half Beauden Barrett and winger Julian Savea.
Hooker Hika Elliot was also named as cover for Keven Mealamu, doubtful for the first Test at Eden Park in Auckland on Saturday, with 31-year-old Richie McCaw, who won the first of his 103 caps against Ireland in 2001, continuing as captain.
NEW ZEALAND'S NEW BOYS
Prop -- Ben Tameifuna
Age: 20. Height: 6'0''. Weight: 18st.
Huge but mobile, a star of the World Cup-winning New Zealand U-20 side last year.
Second-row -- Luke Romano
Age: 26. Height: 6'5''. Weight: 17.5st
Workhorse Crusaders who lacks the height to be the main ball-winner at line-out time but makes up for it with his aggressive contribution around the field.
Second-row -- Brodie Retallick
Age: 21. Height: 6'8''. Weight: 19st
The Chiefs player is enjoying a sensational season and is seen as being in the Ian Jones mould, playing with great maturity.
Flanker -- Sam Cane
Age: 20. Height: 6'2''. Weight: 16st
Hansen yesterday likened the Chiefs openside to a "young Richie McCaw". Very quick to the ball and a turnover specialist.
Scrum-half -- Aaron Smith
Age: 23. Height: 5'8''. Weight: 13st
Played against Ireland for the Maori in 2010 and has shone for Highlanders this term. A superb passer who Hansen compared to Graeme Bachop, the former All Blacks No 9 who essentially did away with dive-passing as the delivery of choice for the country.
Out-half -- Beauden Barrett
Age: 21. Height: 6'1''. Weight: 14.5st
Won World Cups with the U-20s in 2010 and 2011 as well as representing New Zealand at Sevens. Has performed strongly for the Hurricanes this year, mixing a strong running game with superb place-kicking and is certainly one to watch.
Winger -- Julian Savea
Age: 21. Height: 6'3''. Weight: 16.5st
Another Sevens and U-20 star, Savea has been in explosive form for the Hurricanes, backing up his hat-trick against the Rebels with another try against the Waratahs last weekend. Pacy and powerful, he is seen as a certainty to make his debut against Ireland.
NEW ZEALAND SQUAD (30) to face Ireland, caps in brackets -- Hookers: Andrew Hore (62), Keven Mealamu (92). (Hika Elliot (2) included as cover for Mealamu). Props: Wyatt Crockett (6), Ben Franks (15), Owen Franks (31), Ben Tameifuna (0), Tony Woodcock (83). Second-rows: Brodie Retallick (0), Luke Romano (0), Sam Whitelock (25), Ali Williams (73). Back-rows: Sam Cane (0), Richie McCaw (capt, 103), Kieran Read (36), Adam Thomson (24), Victor Vito (13). Scrum-halves: Aaron Smith (0), Piri Weepu (56). Out-halves: Beauden Barrett (0), Dan Carter (85), Aaron Cruden (9). Centres: Tamati Ellison (1), Ma'a Nonu (66), Conrad Smith (55), Sonny Bill Williams (14). Back threes: Israel Dagg (12), Hosea Gear (8), Zac Guildford (8), Ben Smith (2), Julian Savea (0).