The opening game of the 2011 Rugby World Cup sees the hosts New Zealand take on Pacific Island cousins Tonga at Eden Park in Auckland, following the opening ceremony on Friday morning.
Date: 9th September 2011
Time: 09:30 GMT (20:30 NZ Time)
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)
Before the game has even kicked off, the emotion involved in the match should be more than enough to spur both the hosts and visitors on. New Zealand will be desperate for a win to shake off any early nerves, while Tonga in a sense have all the pressure taken off their backs, with no expectations on their performance.
The All Blacks come into the match on the back of a rare two consecutive defeats, against South Africa in Port Elizabeth and Australia in Brisbane. The first defeat featured a team with many changes struggling to contain the Springbok’s physicality, whilst against the Wallabies Graham Henry’s side fought back bravely from a 20-3 deficit at half-time, only to lose out by 25 points to 20 at the final whistle. Publicly, the All Blacks have denied that the losses will have had an effect. Privately, harsh words and some serious thinking will have taken place.
After a positive finish in the Pacific Nations Cup, Tonga should be feeling good ahead of the tournament. The side defeated Samoa and Fiji convincingly, and lost to eventual winners Japan by just a single point. Since then, they have won and lost matches against Fiji as the prepared for the tournament in August.
What to expect:
Tonga’s strength lies in their pack, and therefore it will be here that they hope to if not a least cause the All Blacks some problems, then possibly gain an advantage. With the quality of performers that they have, Tonga will certainly not roll over. It is away from the scrum though where they come up short, and the All Blacks will be keen to test the Tongan defence out wide by getting the ball to pace men Richard Kahui and Isaia Toeava. A few early scores and it could all go wrong very early for the Tongans, so they must hold out for as long as possible.
All eyes on:
Fan favourite Sonny Bill Williams was perhaps a surprise inclusion in the starting line-up, unsettling the first choice combination of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith. SBW is therefore playing for his place, but at the same time is one of those players who will have the crowd on their feet, and should rack up plenty of assists with his superb offloading skills.
Tonga have a lot of stars in their pack, but perhaps their best player is Northampton’s own Soane Tonga’huia. More than just your average prop, fans of the Saints and the Aviva Premiership would love to see the best loosehead in the league make his mark on the world stage. His big hits and fantastic carries should grab the world’s attention.
Head-to-head: Richie McCaw v Finau Maka
The two captains come into this game with not just the responsibility of leading their respective sides, but also as arguably their teams best players. McCaw has the remarkable record of having captained New Zealand 61 times in 98 tests, and on his day is without peer at stealing the ball at the breakdown. Maka is the big running former Stade Toulousain flanker renowned for breaking tackles and his punishing defence. Two colossuses in the back row.
Last fixture: New Zealand 91-7 Tonga, 24th October 2003. Brisbane, Australia.
Weather Forecast: Cloudy.
Whilst the romantic approach to predicting this match would be to say that Tonga may rise to the big occasion and push the All Blacks all the way, realistically this is not the case. New Zealand’s history in matches against Tonga (three wins from three, an aggregate score of 238-16) and the record for opening matches in the Rugby World Cup (only two host teams have ever lost the opening match of a RWC, England in 1991 and France in 2007), means that the balance is in their favour. The All Blacks by 40 plus.
We will be covering the match and opening ceremony live on The Rugby Blog from 08:25 tomorrow morning. Stop by and give us your thoughts.
by Ben Coles