RUGBY UNION Fair dinkum? After naming another predictably powerful squad, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has started the mind games early by declaring the Wallabies favourites for the Bledisloe Cup. Australia, of course, is in the midst of a now 16 year Bledisloe drought but that didn’t stop Hansen from doing his best to keep his champion team on edge. He pointed to the Wallabies’ win in last year’s Bledisloe dead rubber in Brisbane as evidence for Australian optimism for the series which kicks off in Sydney on August 18. “After the Rugby World Cup, this is the most important trophy we play for,” Hansen said. “We lost to Australia the last time we played them, so no doubt they’ll have a lot of self confidence and are worthy of starting as favourites.” The bookmakers don’t share Hansen’s view. Sportsbet.com.au have New Zealand at $1.06 to retain the massive cup with Australia $9. Hansen named a 35 man squad for the Rugby Championship with hooker Liam Coltman and centre Ngani Laumape included as cover for the injured Dane Coles and Sonny Bill Williams. The two major casualties are Hurricanes forwards Jeff Toomaga-Allen and Vaea Fifita, who have been forced out by Tim Perry and Jackson Hemopo. But the two names of most concern to Wallabies coach Michael Cheika will be returning captain Kieran Read and lock Brodie Retallick. The two world class forwards missed June’s 3-0 clean sweep of France with injury. Injured forwards Kane Hames, Nepo Laulala, Atu Moli and Jordan Taufua were fringe players not considered for selection. “The selectors found this an incredibly difficult squad to select,” Hansen said. “It has to be noted that there are some very good players who have not made the squad. “However, as we’ve seen in previous campaigns, a number of these players will get an opportunity through injury, just like Liam and Ngani already. “One of the positives of having such a talented pool to select from is that it creates natural competition, not only for spots in the Rugby Championship squad, but also the matchday 23. “That competition should remove any feelings of complacency within our playing group.” The All Blacks will assemble in Christchurch on Thursday before having a hit out against Canterbury and Otago in the annual ‘game of three halves’ match at AMI Stadium on Friday. A squad of 32 will fly to Sydney on Sunday to prepare for the first Bledisloe Test. “Whilst last year was about growing depth – and we’ll need to continue to do that in some positions – this year is more about growing our game and our player combinations within that,” Hansen said. “By the end of the year, we should have a clearer picture of who and what will be needed for next year’s Rugby World Cup campaign. “Both Australia and South Africa appear to have grown their games and will come at us with real energy and conviction, while the Argentinians have a new coaching group, which will present new challenges. “We’ll need to once again raise the bar across the board when it comes to our preparation, our skill levels and how we handle pressure.