All Blacks aim to hit the ground running
September 6, 2011
All Blacks boss Graham Henry will be warning his players of the dangers of underestimating the Tongans © Getty Images
New Zealand take their first step on a road that they hope will lead to redemption and a long overdue second World Cup title when they tackle Tonga in Auckland on Friday.
When the All Blacks lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in the inaugural event in 1987 few would have imagined that 24 years on they would still be waiting to get their hands on the trophy again.
And yet here were are, with the World Cup back in New Zealand once again and the hosts under enormous pressure to ensure that it stays there after failing to justify their favourites' tag in each of the past five tournaments.
Having been drawn in a pool with bogey side France, there is an undoubted temptation to look ahead to their mouth-watering match-up with Les Bleus in Auckland on September 24, but Graham Henry and his assistants know that momentum is key and Steve Hansen has already underlined the importance of laying down an early marker to their rivals by producing "something magic" against Tonga on Friday.
Of course, their Polynesian rivals will no doubt have something to say about that. The 12th ranked side in the world they may be, but they plan to make their considerable presence felt during some all-too-rare time in the spotlight.
New Zealand - Player to Watch: It simply has to be Sonny Bill Williams. The former league star with the ridiculously soft hands is worth watching regardless of the setting and circumstances on account of his outrageous skills set, but in this, his first appearance on the biggest stage of all in union, you can be certain that he will be even more determined than usual to dazzle.
New Zealand - Team News: Williams has been preferred to Conrad Smith in the All Blacks midfield and that sees Ma'a Nonu switch to No.13 to accommodate the Canterbury ace at inside centre. Israel Dagg gets the nod at fullback over Mils Muliaina, while Richard Kahui and Isaia Toeava are preferred to Cory Jane and Zac Guildford on the right and left wings, respectively. Jimmy Cowan, meanwhile, is chosen ahead of Piri Weepu as Dan Carter's half-back partner. Up front, Tony Woodcock has been passed fit to start despite concerns over a hamstring strain so he takes up his usual berth at loose-head prop. He will be joined in the front-row by Andrew Hore and Owen Franks. Samuel Whitelock makes way for Ali Williams in the second-row, while the injury-enforced absences of blindside flanker Adam Thomson and No.8 Kieran Read mean that there are starts for Jerome Kaino and Victor Vito in the back-row alongside skipper Richie McCaw, who will be making his 99th Test appearance for his country.
Tonga - Player to Watch: When he was younger Finau Maka dreamt of following in the footsteps of older brother Isitolo, who was capped by the All Blacks, but after being overlooked by New Zealand, and subsequently France, for whom he qualified through residency, the powerful No.8 embraced the land of his birth and turned in a string of impressive performances for Tonga during the 2007 World Cup. As captain this time around, the 34-year-old Maka will doubtless bring even more aggression and passion to the party, particularly in this weekend's clash with the All Blacks.
Tonga - Team News: Tonga name Maka as captain with Soane Tonga'uiha heading up a strong front-row. He is partnered by Worcester's Aleki Lutui and Cardiff Blues' Tau Filise. Paino Hehea and Joseph Tuineau will provide the grunt in the second-row while Viliami Ma'afu and Sione Kalamafoni will line up alongside Maka in the back-row. Taniela Moa takes the scrum-half berth alongside Kurt Morath. On the wings the prolific Vili Iongi will hope to make an impact with Siale Piutau on the other flank. Vunga Lilo lines up at fullback with Sukanaivalu Hufanga and Andre Ma'ilei in the centres.
Key Battle: Williams has been paired with Nonu in midfield because of Henry's desire for a heavyweight centre pairing to combat the threat posed by their Tongan counterparts in midfield and that only serves to underline the anticipated brutality of this particular showdown - let battle commence.
Trivia: Tonga have never before made it out of the pool stages of the World Cup.
Stats: The two sides have met just three times before and, unsurprisingly, the All Blacks have won all three games, with their biggest victory coming in North Shore City in June 2000 when they routed the Tongans 102-0.
"There is real competition in a number of positions, at full-back and on the wings and other positions as well, and the selection of the starting XV reflects that. Those players selected have now been given the opportunity, which is exciting, and they will all look to make the most of their chance."
"I think our three Pacific island teams like to play physical games so we're just going to take it to the All Blacks on Friday and see if they can stop us."
Prediction: The big question mark over the All Blacks is just how they will cope with the enormous burden of expectancy that has been placed on their shoulders. However, while they are likely to experience some nerves in this, their opening fixture, Tonga simply do not have the players to really put them under pressure. The Kiwis to open with a predictably high-scoring win.
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