Rust has been a word associated with New Zealand so far at this RWC. On Friday they have a chance to get their wheels in motion against Tonga.
Wins over Argentina (26-16), Namibia (58-14) and Georgia (43-10) hardly produced champagne rugby but maybe that’s doing a disservice to those pool opponents, who stood up admirably against the reigning world champions at Wembley, Olympic Park and the Millennium Stadium respectively.
The Pumas will be a match for anyone they meet in the knockout stages while Namibia proved they have significantly improved from their form in June. Georgia, meanwhile, continue to bang the drum for inclusion in a top European tournament so All Black alarm bells won’t be ringing just yet.
So is it a mini-crisis? We would go along the lines of the ‘why peak in the pools’ argument as Steve Hansen carefully manages his men’s progress.
Aaron Smith and Dan Carter being given another run at nine and ten suggests he was not overly happy with that combination last week while the dropping of Julian Savea is more to do with rotation seeing as he started those openers. Waisake Naholo and Nehe Milner-Skudder are the wings.
France or Ireland continues to be the question of who they will face next weekend but they too are hardly firing on all cylinders right now so Hansen can take solace in that, should he so choose. In fact it is neighbours Australia who most impress while South Africa are recovering nicely.
Their opponents were disappointing against Argentina, not so much with ball in hand but defensively as they were outnumbered all too often in back-play. Nicolas Sanchez caused Tonga all kinds of problems and one would expect the All Blacks to also find those holes at St James’ Park.
It will be a tough game for Latiume Fosita in the unfamiliar position of inside centre and going up against centurion Ma’a Nonu could prove a nightmare. What they will try to do is bring in their elusive wingers, with Steve Mafi and Jack Ram set to provide the impetus up front off the bench.
Tonga, of course, will look to recreate their 2011 pool finale heroics against France when they run out in Newcastle and despite captain Nili Latu’s drive in their most recent post-match press conference to respond, we do not expect anything other than a comfortable New Zealand win.
Ones to watch:
For New Zealand: In his 100th appearance for the All Blacks, expect a big game from Ma’a Nonu. He hasn’t had many minutes so far in this World Cup but make no mistake when it comes to the knockout stages it will be him starting over Sonny Bill Williams. The powerful back has enjoyed a stellar year for the Hurricanes and links up with team-mate Conrad Smith, with Nonu set to give Latiume Fosita a tough evening.
For Tonga: The pressure will be on fly-half Kurt Morath to vastly improve his goal-kicking this week after a tough afternoon in Leicester last week. If he can keep Tonga in touch from the tee then that will be a start for the Islanders. Also keep an eye on devastating wingers Telusa Veainu and Fetu’u Vainikolo, with the New Zealand-born man having played alongside several of his opponents in the past.
Head-to-head: We’ve mentioned him already but Fetu’u Vainikolo‘s clash with Nehe Milner-Skudder tops our list of ones to watch on Friday. Milner-Skudder is back from a week off and faces another player familiar with New Zealand rugby after stints with Northland, Otago and the Highlanders. These two are box office wingers so expect plenty of bums off seats in Newcastle when the ball comes to their side.
2011: New Zealand won 41-10 in Auckland
2003: New Zealand won 91-7 in Brisbane
2000: New Zealand won 102-0 in Albany
1999: New Zealand won 45-9 in Bristol
Prediction: Too much firepower in a high-scoring game. New Zealand by 35!
New Zealand: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Waisake Naholo, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Ben Franks, 19 Brodie Retallick, 20 Liam Messam, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Sonny Bill Williams.
Tonga: 15 Vungakoto Lilo, 14 Telusa Veainu, 13 Siale Piutau, 12 Latiume Fosita, 11 Fetu’u Vainikolo, 10 Kurt Morath, 9 Sonatane Takulua, 8 Viliami Ma’afu, 7 Nili Latu (c), 6 Sione Kalamafoni, 5 Joseph Tuineau, 4 Tukulua Lokotui, 3 Halani Aulika, 2 Elvis Taione, 1 Soane Tonga’uiha.
Replacements: 16 Paula Ngauamo, 17 Sona Taumalolo, 18 Sila Puafisi, 19 Steve Mafi, 20 Jack Ram, 21 Samisoni Fisilau, 22 Viliami Tahitua, 23 Will Helu.
Date: Friday, October 9
Venue: St James’ Park, Newcastle
Kick-off: 20:00 local
Referee: John Lacey (Ireland)
Assistant referees: JP Doyle (England), Marius Mitrea (Italy)
Television match official: Graham Hughes (England)