Preview: New Zealand v Tonga

Getty Images     09 Sep 2011     Getty Images

Friday September 9, 2011


VENUE: Eden Park, Auckland

HEAD-TO-HEAD: New Zealand 3, Tonga 0.

HEAD-TO-HEAD IN WORLD CUPS: New Zealand 2, Tonga 0.

LAST TIME: October 24, 2003 (Brisbane, RWC): New Zealand 91-7 Tonga.

WALKING WOUNDED: New Zealand is still without two of its loose forwards who suffered injuries in the Brisbane Bledisloe Cup test. Kieran Read (high ankle sprain) is not slated to return until the knockout phase of the World Cup, while Adam Thomson (elbow) is expected to be available after this match. Those who were expecting the first-string All Black side may be surprised by a team that shows nine changes from Brisbane, although the key players are all in place for this match.

Depending on which story you believe, Finau Maka has either an ankle problem or one with his Achilles, which renders him either a doubtful starter or not bothered by the injury. The Tongan skipper says he has a ‘twitch' in his Achilles and is certain to play. Tonga has named an experienced side, albeit one that shows seven changes from their last match, against Fiji. Perhaps the biggest news is the recall of two veteran props, Soane Tonga'uiha and Taufa'ao Filise, who both attended the 2007 World Cup but who have collected just one cap between them since that time.

New Zealand:
2011 tests:
Beat Fiji 60-14
Beat South Africa 40-7
Beat Australia 30-14
Lost to South Africa 5-18
Lost to Australia 20-25
Finished second in Tri-nations

2011 tests:
Beat USA 44-13
Beat Fiji 45-21
Lost to Japan 27-28
Beat Samoa 29-19
Finished second in Pacific Nations Cup
Lost to Fiji 12-27
Beat Fiji 32-20

New Zealand was going along nicely until a few weeks ago, when they ran out a second-string side at Port Elizabeth and lost to Morne Steyn's boot. That was followed by a defeat to Australia in the Tri-nations decider, and this loss was by the best XV Graham Henry could field. While they're not pushing the panic button yet, there were several lessons at Brisbane that won't have escaped anyone. The biggest worry going into the early matches will be the fitness of the various loose forwards, as two are on the bank for at least the first match. As ever, New Zealand is among the favoured sides at this tournament and deserves to be in that elite group.

Tonga is one of the teams that could slip in under the radar if its various opponents have not been paying close attention to what went on in the southern winter. The Ikale Tahi should have won the Pacific Nations Cup, being denied the title by Japan's injury-time fourth try against a Fiji side that was at least one man - often more - short for 60 minutes of the final match. Tonga impressed as the best side at that tournament and has subsequently split a pair of matches with Fiji, so the men in red are a side to be watched. They performed very well four years ago and, while not making much of a fuss about it, would like to at least equal that record in 2011.

No man in New Zealand will be the focus of so much attention as home skipper Richie McCaw, who plays his 99th test in the tournament opener. Long-renowned as a player who can dominate any match, McCaw may not have played as much football as he would have wished this year but can get back to top speed quicker than almost anyone else in the game. His presence in the No. 7 jersey means a great deal to his side and he may well be one of the tournament's most influential players.

Tonga fly-half Kurt Morath does not have the same world-wide profile but, on 2011 form, means just as much to his side. He brings a calmness to general play, chooses his options well and has a booming boot that was often used to clear the lines during the Pacific Nations Cup. His goal-kicking in that tournament - 20 from 22 off the tee and 56 points in three matches - was one of the big reasons his side fared so well. In this tournament, where Tonga needs to take every scoring chance, such a player will be invaluable.

All Black coach Graham Henry didn't dodge the obvious midweek when talking about what lay ahead for his troops. "At the end of the day the big one is the Rugby World Cup and everybody knows that, so that is going to define this team and the people associated with it." That act of definition begins this Friday evening.

Tonga captain Finau Maka was frank and open during the week, not least about how he viewed his side's chances. "For me, it's quite realistic," he said when asked about Tonga's playoff chances. "I'm confident that with the team we have we can beat anyone." The bookies may disagree with him, but the All Blacks know a physical challenge awaits.

New Zealand should win this match and do so comfortably on the board, even if it will be tough on the field. Tonga has only once held New Zealand below 90 points in a test and while we don't expect the score to get up to those numbers the All Blacks will not be happy if they are not 50 clear by the end.

New Zealand: 1. Tony Woodcock, 2. Andrew Hore, 3. Owen Franks, 4. Brad Thorn, 5. Ali Williams, 6. Jerome Kaino, 7. Richie McCaw (capt), 8. Victor Vito, 9. Jimmy Cowan, 10. Daniel Carter, 11. Isaia Toeava, 12. Sonny Bill Williams, 13. Ma'a Nonu, 14. Richard Kahui, 15. Israel Dagg.

Reserves: 16. Corey Flynn, 17. Ben Franks, 18. Anthony Boric, 19. Sam Whitelock, 20. Piri Weepu, 21. Colin Slade, 22. Cory Jane.