Match Preview: New Zealand vs. Tonga

The 2011 edition of the Rugby World Cup finally kicks off on Friday with host nation New Zealand taking on Tonga at Eden Park. A try-fest beckons, with the All Blacks looking to make an instant impression on their home turf after successive losses away from home in the Tri-Nations. Tongan fans will hope for an improvement on the last meeting between the two, where New Zealand ran away 91-7 winners. Expect a tough physical encounter that will typify Pacific rugby, although New Zealand will be far too fast and strong for any hope of a Tongan upset.

Richie McCaw earns his 99th cap in a pack nearing full strength; with sevens star Victor Vito replacing the injured Kieran Read s at No. 8 and Andrew Hore given his opportunity to stake his claim at hooker. Graham Henry has named an experimental backs line-up which sees the physical prowess of Sonny Bill Williams and Ma’a Nonu partnered in the centres at the expense of Conrad Smith; Israel Dagg is set to continue his push for first team selection after beating Mils Muliaina to the 15 jersey in a raw but talented back three that promises pace and flair in abundance.

Finau Maka dismissed talk of a Tongan roll-over upon arriving in New Zealand and claimed his team was in better form than their illustrious counterparts, with Tonga having won their final warm-up match against Fiji before watching the All Blacks beaten for the second consecutive week. The Tongan captain will have to back his words with the performance of a lifetime against opposite seven McCaw if his prediction is to come true. Halfback Taniela Moa will not be overawed on his return to Eden Park after starting his career with the Auckland Blues but will be called upon to marshal a back line sorely lacking the top-level exposure of their opponents.

Players to watch:
Israel Dagg has made an explosive return to international rugby after an injury layoff and is one outstanding performance away from clinching the starting fullback role. Victor Vito also needs a big game to repay the faith invested in him by selectors and will look to show his physical side against a bruising Tongan forward pack.

Tongan wing Viliame Iongi has scored seven tries in his last six tests and has enough genuine pace to trouble any defence in world rugby.

New Zealand Starting XV: 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 (c), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Ali Williams, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Substitutes: 16 Corey Flynn, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Anthony Boric, 19 Sam Whitelock, 20 Piri Weepu, 21 Colin Slade, 22 Cory Jane.

Tonga Starting XV: 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.
Substitutes: 16 Ephraim Taukafa, 17 Alisona Taumalolo, 18 Kisi Pulu, 19 Sione Timani, 20 Samiu Vahafolau, 21 Samisoni Fisilau, 22 Alipate Fatafehi.