New Zealand head coach Graham Henry has named Sitiveni Sivivatu and Doug Howlett on the wings for Saturday’s highly-anticipated clash with England at Twickenham.
After fielding experimental line-ups in the 41-3 win over Wales and 45-7 trouncing of Ireland, Henry and his selectors settled on what they believe to be the All Blacks’ most potent XV.
But he described it as the toughest selection of his time as All Blacks coach.
Sivivatu and Howlett get the nod over Rico Gear and Joe Rokocoko for the wing berths. Captain Tana Umaga and Aaron Mauger link in midfield with Dan Carter, orchestrator of New Zealand’s win in Cardiff, returning to start at fly-half with Byron Kelleher at scrum-half.
Keven Mealamu starts at hooker with Anton Oliver suffering a calf problem, while Tony Woodcock and Carl Hayman complete a front row who will expect a fearsome challenge from England’s giant trio.
Ali Williams and Chris Jack combine to lock the scrum while Richie McCaw, widely regarded as the best open-side flanker in the game, joins Jerry Collins and Rodney So’oialo in the back row.
Henry said: “It is the most difficult team we have had to pick as selectors.
“Across the board we have guys who are playing outstanding rugby. For example, Rico Gear scored a hat-trick against Wales and can’t get in the team.”
Henry has made eight changes to his starting XV from the win in Dublin and Saturday’s clash at Twickenham clearly represents the main focus of New Zealand’s Grand Slam tour.
They will be desperate to lay down a marker at the world champions’ doorstep - and on recent form few would bet against them.
New Zealand, in winning the Tri-Nations and the Test series against the Lions, have averaged 39.5 points in 10 matches this year.
Their only setback came against South Africa in Cape Town, where the Springboks produced a ferocious performance.
England, after demolishing Australia with the power of their pack last weekend, will be determined to do the same and deny New Zealand’s lethal runners decent possession.
New Zealand team to play England at Twickenham on Saturday:
M Muliaina (Auckland); D Howlett (Auckland), T Umaga (Wellington), A Mauger (Canterbury), S Sivivatu (Waikato); D Carter (Canterbury), B Kelleher (Waikato); T Woodcock (North Harbour), K Mealamu (Auckland), C Hayman (Otago), C Jack (Canterbury), A Williams (Auckland), J Collins (Wellington), R McCaw (Canterbury), R So’oialo (Wellington).
Replacements: A Hore (Taranaki), N Tialata (Wellington), J Eaton (Taranaki), M Tuialai’i (Canterbury), P Weepu (Wellington), J Rokocoko (Auckland), L MacDonald (Canterbury).