A host of fringe players will get the chance to stake a final claim for a place in New Zealand’s World Cup squad after being named in the starting XV for Saturday’s Tri Nations clash with South Africa.
Full-back Israel Dagg (thigh), wing Isaia Toeava (hip), centre Richard Kahui (hamstring) and loosehead prop Tony Woodcock (foot) have all been included and will play their first Tests of the year.
John Afoa will play at tighthead prop while Sonny Bill Williams starts his first Test of the season.
Adam Thomson takes over in the number seven shirt from captain Richie McCaw, Liam Messam gets the nod at number eight, Colin Slade starts at fly-half with Jimmy Cowan at scrum-half.
All Blacks coach Graham Henry was looking forward to seeing how his shadow side get on in Port Elizabeth.
“There is excitement across the board in the squad and every player will be looking to put in a big performance this weekend,” he told www.stuff.co.nz.
“Playing the Springboks at home is always a massive occasion and with Rugby World Cup spots also up for grabs, our players will be looking to put in a big performance.
“We know we will also be facing a wounded Springboks side who will want to bounce back from their three losses on the trot so we will have to be ready for a huge physical contest.”
Keven Mealamu takes over as skipper from McCaw and admits facing South Africa is more difficult than the previous time he led the side, against Scotland at Murrayfield during the 2008 Grand Slam tour.
He said: “I think it would be pretty huge for this side (to win).
“Although we have got a lot of experience, we are missing quite a few familiar faces so I think it would be a huge achievement for us to go out and do that.
“I still realise the situation that is ahead – they are a side that is hurting at the moment because they haven’t been able to get across the line with some wins. That just adds to the pressure of making sure we play well at the weekend.
“But I have real belief in this side. I think we still have quite an experienced forward pack, guys that have played together for a bit.
“As the week goes on it’s a matter of making sure we get a good connection with our backs.
“Obviously there are a few new combinations there with our midfield and back three. But they are very talented and if we can bring that together it will go a long way towards the weekend performance as well.”
Israel Dagg; Isaia Toeava, Richard Kahui, Sonny Bill Williams, Hosea Gear; Colin Slade, Jimmy Cowan; Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu (captain), John Afoa, Sam Whitelock, Ali Williams, Jerome Kaino, Adam Thomson, Liam Messam.
Replacements: Andrew Hore, Ben Franks, Jarrad Hoeata, Victor Vito, Andy Ellis, Piri Weepu, Cory Jane.