New Zealand kick-off their Test season against Fiji on Friday with a fixture which doubles as a charity fundraiser for Christchurch.
New Zealand kick-off their Test season against Fiji on Friday with a fixture which doubles as a charity fundraiser for the Christchurch earthquake appeal.
What's that you say? Another Pacific Islands team taking on one of the Tri-Nations big guns? Could we be in for another shock to rival Samoa's upset of Australia last weekend?
For those of you looking to draw conclusions from Sunday's result in Sydney, here is some food for thought: In their four previous Tests, Fiji have never come within 50 points of the All Blacks. They also lost to Japan in their last outing, due largely to being on the receiving end of four cards – two of each colour.
But before you bet your house on the visitors being handed another hiding, consider this: Fiji beat Samoa two weeks ago in the Pacific Nations Cup.
OK, we'll concede that the Fijians were playing at home and that Samoa's squad that day was not as strong as the team that shocked the Wallabies, but it certainly suggests that we are unlikely to see a repeat of the 91-0 scoreline when the Flying Fijians last visited the Land of the Long White Cloud.
Of course most of the attention will be on the home side, and rightly so, as they prepare for the Tri-Nations and the World Cup. With most of the Crusaders being given a break, Friday offers a handful of players a chance to put forward their claims for a place in the All Blacks' RWC squad.
Adam Thomson will be looking to continue his amazing Super Rugby form while a resurgent Ali Williams will guide debutant Jarrad Hoeata in the second row.
Others will be out to convince Graham Henry that they should retain their status as incumbents. Step forward Ma'a Nonu…
The visitors meanwhile have sent a very solid side. With Nicky Little injured, veteran playmaker Seremaia Bai – who has been playing in midfield to great effect for Castres – will wear the number ten jersey. One late change to the side sees stalwart lock forward Ifereimi Rawaqa pulling out due to sickness and is replaced by Nadroga's feisty loose forward-cum-lock Rupeni Nasiga.
As always, the Fijians will bring their expansive approach, although it must be noted that they have made huge progress in the forward ranks in recent years – as illustrated by their draw against Wales at the Millennium Stadium last November.
It's a real shame that ticket sales have been slow for this one – it's guaranteed to produce plenty of tries.
Players to watch:
For New Zealand : Probably the only the topic in getting more attention in New Zealand than the SBW v Nonu debate is the back-up-for-Dan-Carter saga. Colin Slade gets a chance to repay the faith put in him by the selectors with his first start in the black jersey (his only other cap came off the bench last September). His opposite number is a very experienced campaigner so the youngster will have to come up with the goods. Messrs Cruden, McAlister, Donald and Brett will certainly be watching with an attentive eye.
For Fiji: It's no secret that we're big fans of Napolioni Nalaga. Once the most devastating attacking force in France, the drama that prevented his return to Clermont was worthy of day-time television. Estranged lovers, a mysterious accident, a pre-arranged marriage gone wrong, a overbeing mother and a village chief holding him captive…it was a true soap opera, Fijian style. Now he's back. Twice the Top 14's top try-scorer, Nalaga is all power and speed. If he gets a sniff of the line with some space to work in, he's near-impossible to stop. Also keep an eye on the other wing, Montpellier speedster Timoci Naqusa, who scored a cracking try in the Top 14 Final.
Head-to-head: The first order of business for the visitors will be to try compete up front. Former Chiefs, New Zealand U21 and New Zealand Maori prop Deacon Manu will captain the side and has the task of scrumming against Wyatt Crockett, who has been crushing Super Rugby opponents all year. If the All Blacks scrum consistently goes forward, putting the home back-line on the front foot, the Fijian defence is in for a torrid 80 minutes.
2005: New Zealand won 91 – 0 in North Shore City (Auckland)
2002: New Zealand won 68 -18 in Wellington
1997: New Zealand won 71 -5 in North Shore City (Auckland)
1987: New Zealand won 74 – 13 in Christchurch
Prediction: With the weather set to resemble a Fijian nightmare, the home pack should dominate. New Zealand by 35 points.
New Zealand: 15 Mils Muliaina, 14 Zac Guildford, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Liam Messam, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Ali Williams, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Ben Franks, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Corey Flynn, 17 John Afoa, 18 Sam Whitelock, 19 Jerome Kaino, 20 Piri Weepu, 21 Dan Carter, 22 Ben Smith.
Fiji: 15 Iliesa Keresoni, 14 Timoci Nagusa, 13 Albert Vulivuli, 12 Ravai Fatiaki, 11 Napolioni Nalaga, 10 Seremaia Baikeinuku, 9 Nemia Serelevu, 8 Sakiusa Matadigo, 7 Akapusi Qera, 6 Dominiko Waqaniburotu, 5 Rupeni Nasiga, 4 Sekonaia Kalou, 3 Deacon Manu (c), 2 Sunia Koto, 1 Campese Ma'afu.
Replacements: 16 Viliame Veikoso, 17 Setefano Somoca, 18 Josefa Domolailai, 19 Malakai Ravulo, 20 Vitori Buatava, 21 Taniela Rawaqa, 22 Vereniki Goneva.
Date: Friday, July 22
Venue: Carisbrook, Dunedin
Kick-off: 19:35 (07:35 GMT)
Weather: 4Â°C. Morning showers.
Referee: Stuart Dickinson (Australia)
Assistant referees: Steve Walsh (Australia), James Leckie (Australia)
Television match official: George Ayoub (Australia)
By Ross Hastie