RWC 2011: New-look All Blacks seek boost in opener
Story and Photo: www.rugbyworldcup.com
AUCKLAND, 8 Sept. - Tonga have put their faith in a new centre pairing while New Zealand aim to bounce back from their recent Tri Nations defeat when Rugby World Cup 2011 kicks off at Eden Park on Friday.
New Zealand coach Graham Henry has made nine changes to the team which lost the final Tri Nations match against Australia in Brisbane on August 27 with veteran full back Mils Muliaina, omitted in favour of Israel Dagg, the biggest casualty.
Only two of the seven backs who played against the Wallabies, Dan Carter and Ma’a Nonu, retain their places in the starting XV.
Nonu has been forced into unfamiliar territory at outside centre to make way for Sonny Bill Williams at inside, a move Nonu is happy to make to maximise New Zealand’s scoring potential.
"Everyone knows what he (Williams) can do,” he said. “He's a megastar and a rock star and a great athlete. If he can do his magic, hopefully I can run off him."
Tonga coach Isitolo Maka has opted for a new centre pairing with Andrew Ma’ilei and Sukanaivalu Hufanga named in the starting XV.
Faith in players
"We've looked at the speed of the New Zealand team and the way they play. So we're looking at the fittest guys that we've got,” Maka said. “Probably we can match them fitness-wise."
While he is banking on matching New Zealand’s speed, Maka said the selection of Ma’ilei and Hufanga had not been in response to the All Blacks' team announcement.
"I don't think we're worried about Sonny Bill or Nonu,” he said. We just have faith in the players that we've got."
His brother Finau Maka, meanwhile, has been named as captain despite questions over his fitness.
The Tongan talisman was forced to train separately during the week after suffering what he described as a “twitch” in his Achilles last Friday but, while his coach alluded to the possibility of a late fitness test, Finau Maka is adamant he will start.
“I’ll play,” he said at the team announcement.
While Tonga’s front row have some Rugby World Cup experience, there has been little match time since 2007, with prop Taufa’ao Filise recalled to the side after a four-year absence.
Filise's last match for the Ikale Tahi was at RWC 2007, while Soane Tonga’uiha has had just one international outing since then, in the final warm-up against Fiji three weeks ago when Tonga won 32-20.
Youngster Viliame Iongi could be one to watch on the wing following his dazzling four-try debut for Tonga against USA.
Much has been made of Tonga’s reputation for physical and aggressive play in the lead-up to the RWC opener and New Zealand are expecting some rough and tumble.
"I think the Tongans will be firing,” Nonu said. They pretty much want to come out and have a good hit-out really.
"I assume they want to bash us. There'll be no love lost against the Tongans, our Tongan brothers, and it will be a good first-up game."
While proud of Tonga's reputation for physical strength, Finau Maka said he has faith in the discipline and skill of his front row.
“Our forward pack is now much more disciplined. They've all played overseas and they're good enough to play for the All Blacks.
“Discipline can win or lose the game for you.”
Hooker Aleki Lutui echoed his skipper’s sentiments.
“Most of us are professional rugby players,” he said. “We know the rules of the game, how to play, how to tackle, everything.”
Isitolo Maka also believes his side have more to offer than just their physical style of play and thinks they might surprise the All Blacks.
"It's not just about the contact area,” the coach said. “I have faith in our backline because we could move the ball wide then show what we can do.
“It's not just about smashing each other and going into contact, maybe we could surprise by playing a different style of game."
Despite taking on the No.1 team in the world, Finau Maka insisted New Zealand have everything to lose while Tonga have everything to gain.
“There’s no pressure on us, the pressure is on them,” he said. “We’re just going to go out there and give it to them and see if they can handle it.
"Our last game we won, where they lost, so our confidence is up and theirs is down so it could work either way.”
The opening match of Rugby World Cup 2011 will kick off at 20:30 local time at Auckland's Eden Park.