New Zealand coach Ian Foster will blood four new All Blacks in Saturday’s Test in Auckland against Tonga.
Inside centre Quinn Tupaea is included in the starting 15 with prop George Bower, loose forward Ethan Blackadder and Scotland-born scrumhalf Finlay Christie to make their debuts from the bench.
The All Blacks are to play Tonga and then two Tests against Fiji over the next three weeks as Foster prepares his squad for the more formidable task of the Rugby Championship later in the year involving world champions South Africa, Australia and Argentina.
The All Blacks are overwhelming favourites against a Tonga side featuring nine debutants in the starting lineup and lacking their top Europe-based players.
But it will be the nature of the performance rather than the scoreline that will be the focus for New Zealand.
Foster, whose first season in charge of the All Blacks delivered only three wins from six Tests, is under pressure to produce a side that can command the international respect held by the 1987, 2011 and 2015 World Cup-winning teams.
“After Covid disrupted our season last year we felt a little bit distanced from our fans playing most of our games overseas, so what’s in front of us this weekend is very exciting,” Foster said.
Foster has named a strong forward pack with experienced hooker Dane Coles starting in his 75th Test alongside props Karl Tu’inukuafe and Angus Ta’avao.
Captain Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett are the starting locks, with four-Test flank Daton Papalii filling the seven role vacated by the injured Sam Cane while Akira Ioane and Luke Jacobson round off the loose forwards.
Foster has opted to rest his No 1 scrumhalf, Aaron Smith, allowing Brad Weber to start the Test with Richie Mo’unga outside him while Rieko Ioane and Tupaea fill the centres.
George Bridge and Will Jordan are on the wings with Damian McKenzie at fullback and the Barrett brothers Jordie and Beauden on the bench.
Foster said Jordie Barrett, usually seen at fullback or on the wing, would cover the midfield.
“We know where he will play long term but he’s a great utility player to have.”
The last time the All Blacks played Tonga, in 2019, they won 92-7.
New Zealand – 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Will Jordan, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 Quinn Tupaea, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Luke Jacobson, 7 Dalton Papalii, 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Angus Ta’avao, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Karl Tu’inukuafe.
Subs: 16 Asafo Aumua, 17 George Bower, 18 Tyrel Lomax, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Ethan Blackadder, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Jordie Barrett.
© Agence France-Presse
Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images