New Zealand v Fiji, Dunedin, July 22
All Blacks ready for the off
July 21, 2011
Colin Slade will steer the All Blacks in their season opener © Getty Images
New Zealand set foot on the road to the Rugby World Cup on Friday night, with Fiji the visitors to Carisbrook for the All Blacks' opening Test of the season.
Graham Henry has scant time to trial new combinations prior to the Tri-Nations and will want his side to hit their stride early on against a Fijian side with mixed form behind them in the recent Pacific Nations Cup.
The Islanders will doubtless be keen to follow in the footsteps of Samoa - victors over the Wallabies in Sydney last weekend - but face a massive task, with numerous disciplinary issues hampering their selection and only the memory of a 91-0 drubbing in their last meeting with the All Blacks for company.
The hosts have added reason to perform as the game forms part of the ongoing fund-raising effort following the Christchurch earthquake, although early ticket sales point to a small crowd for the final game at the 'House of Pain'.
New Zealand - Player to Watch: If Highlanders playmaker Colin Slade has secured pole-position in the race to deputise for Dan Carter at the Rugby World Cup, then his second Test - following a brief cameo against the Wallabies last year - is that difficult first corner. He has Aaron Cruden, Luke McAlister and Stephen Donald on his tail and will need to show up early after a Super Rugby season blighted by jaw injuries.
New Zealand- Team News: Slade lines up inside the experienced centre pairing of Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith, while Highlanders lock Jarrad Hoeata has been handed a debut alongside the returning Ali Williams in the second-row. Richie McCaw skippers the side from the back-row, where he is joined by Adam Thomson and Liam Messam. Up-front, Wyatt Crockett returns to action at loose-head. Impressive Highlanders utility back Ben Smith is in line to win his second cap off the bench.
Fiji - Player to Watch: Napolioni Nalaga bagged two tries in Fiji's bad-tempered loss to Japan last weekend and the former Clermont Auvergne winger will want to make a further statement after a difficult period on a personal level.
Fiji - Team News: No.8 Sisa Koyamaibole and centre Seru Rabeni both miss out due to suspension, while prop Graham Dewes has been omitted from the squad and lock Leone Nakarawa has been denied entry to New Zealand due to his links with the Fijian army. Scarlets tight-head Deacon Manu leads the Islanders and Castres playmaker Seremaia Bai retains the No.10 jersey. Racing Metro's Albert Vulivuli will provide pace and power from midfield as Gloucester flanker Akapusi Qera goes up against McCaw.
Key Battle: Fiji will need to guarantee their share of possession, so the effectiveness of their back-row against a high-quality All Blacks trio will be key. Their green pack will also have a job to contain the hosts at scrum-time, with the set-piece also set to play a prominent role.
Trivia: In each of their four meetings, an All Black has crossed for three tries or more against Fiji. In 1987, John Gallagher bagged four while in 1997 Jeff Wilson crossed five times. Christian Cullen secured a hat-trick in 2002 and Sitiveni Sivivatu four scores six years ago.
Stats: The All Blacks have won 83% of their Tests at Carisbrook, including a 42-9 win over Wales in June 2010 - the previous 'last' Test at the ground.
"It'd be stupid not to say that [the World Cup] is in the back of our minds, but this week is about getting together without thinking too much down the track. It's about getting everything sorted so that we can play well this week, and then go into the Tri-Nations the following week. That's the focus." - All Blacks skipper McCaw
"Rain, hail or shine, we're here to play rugby for 80 minutes. We'll play them at their own game...back ourselves and tackle like tomorrow's our last game." - Fiji boss Sam Domoni
Prediction: Fiji will have been emboldened by Samoa's heroics against the Wallabies but expect any resistance to be short-lived in a heavy All Blacks win.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.