Veteran lock Sam Whitelock has been given the All Blacks captaincy in injured Sam Cane's absence as coach Ian Foster confirmed the first New Zealand squad for the 2021 Test season in Auckland tonight.
The 122-Test veteran will lead the All Blacks next month when they take on Fiji and Tonga as Cane continues to recover from an April surgery on a serious pectoral injury.
Foster said Whitelock was an easy choice to take over the captaincy.
"He's an outstanding All Black and I don't use that word very often but he deserves that," Foster said.
"He's been a key part of our leadership group and he's been in it for a long while so he knows the team, he knows where we're going and he has a great relationship with Sam Cane.
"We've got a lot of faith in Sam and he links really well with the leadership group that we've got."
Whitelock revealed shortly after the announcement Foster had called him about the appointment "weeks ago" but he kept the news secret, even from family.
"I didn't tell mum and dad so they would've just found out now," Whitelock said.
"They were ringing and asking if I'd heard anything and I kind of gave them nothing... so sorry to do that."
Foster also named four debutants in the 36-man squad tonight with Blues halfback Finlay Christie along with the Crusaders' Ethan Blackadder, Chiefs' Quinn Tupaea and Highlanders front rower Ethan de Groot getting calls from the All Blacks coach.
Crusaders prop George Bower is a fifth uncapped player in the squad, though he toured with the All Blacks last season.
"I want to congratulate all players selected for this Steinlager Series squad, especially, the new All Blacks, Ethan de Groot and Ethan Blackadder, and Finlay and Quinn," Foster added.
"It’s an incredibly special day for them and their families and we look forward to catching up with them when we get into camp this week.
“There will be players who will be disappointed at missing out on selection and we feel for them as well.”
This year's squad is made up of 21 forwards and 15 backs, boasting nine Blues players, eight Chiefs, five Hurricanes, 11 Crusaders and three Highlanders with 920 caps-worth of experience present.
Foster said the team has a goal of becoming World No.1 again this year.
“This is going to involve hard work and a commitment to our preparation, whilst at the same time expanding our depth, with an eye to the future."
The team will assemble for a three-day camp in South Auckland later this week before heading into the Tongan Test week.
More to come.
All Blacks 2021 squad
Ethan De Groot*
Sam Whitelock [C]