The question is not who will win Friday's World Cup opener but rather in what state New Zealand will be left after 80 minutes.
The question is not who will win Friday's 2011 Rugby World Cup opener in Auckland but rather in what state New Zealand will be left after 80 minutes.
It's the moment we've all been waiting for. The World Cup finally kicks off and the All Blacks get a chance to make amends for the disappointment of four years ago.
While the hosts are under massive pressure to keep the Webb Ellis Cup in New Zealand for four years (not just six weeks), they won't be having sleepless nights about Friday's result.
Tonga will not win – of that there is no doubt. The Islanders have never beaten the All Blacks. In fact, they have not even come within 80 points of the Kiwis in the last decade.
But the team in red will not go down lightly, and it's their reputation for thundering big hits that will have All Blacks coach Graham Henry worried.
Indeed the Tongans have promised to bring their standard physical approach to what is sure to be a bruising encounter. The Ikale Tahi have a habit of picking up cards (they've seen red and yellow more than any other team in World Cup history) and will still be ruing the final game of this year's Pacific Nations Cup where they lost the title in the last minute to Japan, due largely to the fact that they were down a man for an hour.
As a result, don't be surprised if Dan Carter and Richie McCaw don't play to the final whistle. Henry will want to make sure of the result before pulling out the ol' shepherd's hook and getting his stars out of harm's way.
Speaking of stars, Ma'a Nonu will wear number thirteen as Sonny Bill Williams is given a chance at inside centre. It's incredibly tough to leave a player as classy as Conrad Smith out but we fancy the Nonu-SBW combination will wreak havoc. Picture it: an off-load out the back of Williams''s hand into the path of a charging 110kg Nonu… ouch.
Of course it would be wrong to assume that Tonga will be thrashed by a cricket score. They beat Fiji 32-20 in their last warm-up game and have bolstered that winning team with a couple of European-based players.
The visitors are also sure to have plenty of support after they arrived at Auckland Airport to an awaiting crowd of over 4,000 – more than any other side.
Interestingly, Tonga will kick-off the World Cup's haka showdowns. They will start their traditional pre-match war dance before the hosts, who will then have the choice to try out-shout their rivals or wait until they have finished.
After two consecutive losses, a big win is just what the doctor ordered for the All Blacks as they begin their quest to appease an expectant nation. There should be tries aplenty.
We can't wait.
Players to watch:
For New Zealand: He's set to be one of the stars of the World Cup… as long as he can make his team's first XV, Sonny Bill Williams has been given a rare opportunity to start and show us all what he is capable of. He floats like a butterfly, off-loads like a magician and hits like a lumberjack. If SBW is given enough space, we're likely to be treated to a real spectacle. But will it be enough to earn a place in the team to face France in two weeks?
For Tonga: Tongan-born but New Zealand-educated Soane Tonga'uiha is a star of the English Premiership where the Northampton Saints charger is a try-scoring phenomenon, ending the last two seasons as the league's top-scoring prop. In what is set to be a high-scoring game, the 126 kg man-mountain is bound to get a chance to show of his impressive turn of speed
Head-to-head: Competition for places in the All Blacks back-row is red hot at the moment and Jerome Kaino will be out cement his berth while Adam Thomson is sidelined with an elbow injury. He'll be up against Tonga captain Finau Maka, who could be a little rusty since he now is playing his trade in France's third division. But the former Toulouse back-rower's reputation for big hits and barnstorming runs is well earned so his tussle with Kaino is sure to be exciting to watch.
2003: New Zealand won 91 -7 in Brisbane
2000: New Zealand won 102-0 in North Shore City
1999: New Zealand won 45 – 9 in Bristol
Prediction: No mystery here. The crowd should get plenty in return for forking out for the tickets to the opening game. New Zealand by 45 points
New Zealand 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Richard Kahui, 13 Ma'a Nonu, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Isaia Toeava, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Richie McCaw (capt), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Ali Williams, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Corey Flynn, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Anthony Boric, 19 Sam Whitelock, 20 Piri Weepu, 21 Colin Slade, 22 Cory Jane.
Tonga: 15 Vunga Lilo, 14 Viliame Iongi, 13 Suka Hufanga, 12 Andrew Ma'ilei, 11 Siale Piutau, 10 Kurt Morath, 9 Taniela Moa, 8 Viliami Ma'afu, 7 Finau Maka (c), 6 Sione Kalamafoni, 5 Joe Tu'ineau, 4 Paino Hehea, 3 Taufa'ao Filise, 2 Aleki Lutui, 1 Soane Tonga'uiha.
Replacements: 16 Ephraim Taukafa, 17 Alisona Taumalolo, 18 Kisi Pulu, 19 Sione Timani, 20 Samiu Vahafolau, 21 Samisoni Fisilau, 22 Alipate Fatafehi.
Date: Friday, September 9
Kick-off: 20.30 (08.30 GMT)
Venue: Eden Park Stadium, Auckland
Weather: Dry. Day time high: 18Â°C; Evening low: 7Â°C
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Craig Joubert (South Africa), Stuart Terheege (England)
Television match official: Giulio De Santis (Italy)
By Ross Hastie