sport

Hansen wary of improved England

New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen regards Stuart Lancaster's England as the most improved team in Test rugby ahead of the three-game series.

Preparations for the first Test at Eden Park have been undermined by a debilitating injury list and the absence of players from Aviva Premiership finalists Northampton and Saracens.

It has weakened England for the toughest assignment in the game, but the All Blacks, who on Sunday named a 31-man squad for the series, are ready to face a growing force in the international arena.

"England have been the most improved side in world rugby in the last two years," Hansen said.

"Stuart Lancaster has built depth in his side and a strong culture, so they will be a formidable opponent and one we are very excited about playing.

"Those who think England will be fielding a weak side in the first Test are completely underestimating the quality of depth in the England squad.

"Make no mistake, England have a very strong desire and belief that they can win this series. Having said that, so do the All Blacks.

"This series gives both teams a great opportunity to put a stake in the ground, not only this year, but also for the 2015 World Cup.

"This will add to the pressure on both sides in the upcoming series."

World Cup-winning captain Richie McCaw leads a squad missing fly-half Dan Carter, who is been on a sabbatical from the sport.

Centre Malakai Fekitoa and lock Patrick Tuipulotu are newcomers to the All Blacks, while veteran back rows Jerome Kaino and Victor Vito return to the fold after spells away.

New Zealand squad:

Forwards: D Coles (Hurricanes), K Mealamu (Blues), W Crockett (Crusaders), C Faumuina (Blues), B Franks (Hurricanes), O Franks (Crusaders), T Woodcock (Blues), D Bird (Crusaders), B Retallick (Chiefs), P Tuipulotu (Blues), S Whitelock (Crusaders), S Cane (Chiefs), J Kaino (Blues), R McCaw (Crusaders, capt), L Messam (Chiefs), K Read (Crusaders), V Vito (Hurricanes).

Backs: T Kerr-Barlow (Chiefs), TJ Perenara (Hurricanes), A Smith (Highlanders), B Barrett (Hurricanes), A Cruden (Chiefs), C Slade (Crusaders), R Crotty (Crusaders), M Fekitoa (Highlanders), M Nonu (Blues), C Smith (Hurricanes), I Dagg (Crusaders), C Jane (Hurricanes), J Savea (Hurricanes), B Smith (Highlanders).