All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw is injured, leaving Kieran Read to lead the side against Tonga on Friday (Saturday AEDT) in their final Rugby World Cup pool game in which centre Ma’a Nonu will win his 100th cap.
However, coach Steve Hansen downplayed the previously unreported thigh injury, saying McCaw had suffered a knock but, if it was a knockout match, he would have been right to play.
The All Blacks are already through to the quarter-finals which has influenced Hansen to rest his long-serving skipper.
“He knows we’ve qualified and the most important game we’ve got now is the quarter-final. If we don’t win that game, we go home,” Hansen said.
“If we were playing a final, he’d be fit.”
Sam Cane, who led the side against Namibia, replaces McCaw in the No.7 jersey but the captaincy has been awarded to Read who Hansen has already anointed the heir-apparent skipper.
Waisake Naholo, who had been under an injury cloud, has been cleared to start with Nehe Milner-Skudder on the wings, giving Julian Savea his first break in the tournament.
Regular props Tony Woodcock and Owen Franks, relegated to the bench in the last match against Georgia, return to the starting line-up.
In the backs, Nonu replaces Sonny Bill Williams at inside centre to become the All Blacks’ sixth centurion, drawing praise from Hansen.
“He has been an incredibly valued member of our group for a very long time. He has been fully committed to enhancing the All Blacks’ jersey and the values that go with it,” Hansen said.
“He plays a special part within the group and loves this team.”
Nonu, whose first Test was against England in 2003, has started 73 Tests at inside centre, 10 at outside centre and 16 off the bench.
Loose forward Liam Messam is set to end his frustrating wait as the only member of the All Blacks’ squad not to take the field in the World Cup.
He has been given the all-clear with his calf injury and will start off the bench.
Hansen said the squad had prepared well for the Tonga Test.
“We’ve had a very heavy workload in the last two weeks on the training pitch and a couple of very physical games, which has been great.
“But this week, we’ve been looking to freshen the group up and really concentrate on the key parts of our game that we expect will deliver a quality, 80-minute performance on Friday night.”
New Zealand have never been beaten in four meetings with Tonga.
Ben Smith; Nehe Milner-Skudder, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Waisake Naholo; Dan Carter, Aaron Smith; Kieran Read (capt), Sam Cane, Jerome Kaino; Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano; Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Tony Woodcock. Res: Keven Mealamu, Wyatt Crockett, Ben Franks, Brodie Retallick, Liam Messam, Tawera Kerr Barlow, Beauden Barrett, Sonny Bill Williams