New Zealand head coach Graham Henry insisted he was not prepared to gamble on the fitness of captain Richie McCaw and full-back Mils Muliaina for the World Cup Pool A clash with Japan in Hamilton.
A minor calf strain means McCaw will now have to wait to become the first All Black to win 100 caps, with hooker Keven Mealamu appointed captain in the openside flanker’s absence.
Muliaina has also been withdrawn from the team with a tight right hamstring, while Israel Dagg (right abdominal strain) is also not available following medical assessment this morning.
The news follows the withdrawal of fly-half Dan Carter (back) and is a precautionary move, with the September 24 clash with France in mind.
Henry said: “They’re minor injuries. We don’t want to make it worse. It would not matter who is playing next week.
“We’d be taking a risk if we played them and we can’t afford to do that.
“Mils trained most of the session. He’s running at 85%, not 100%. That’s not good enough.”
Isaia Toeava will now start at full-back, Adam Thomson will shift to openside flanker and Victor Vito comes off the bench to start at number eight, with lock Anthony Boric coming onto the bench.
The All Blacks opened the tournament with a 41-10 win over Tonga and are widely expected to romp to victory over Japan before next week’s major bout with France.
Henry added: “I think the biggest thing is to keep on improving. If we improve each game, we’ll be competitive.
“We’re trying to make sure we perfect certain parts of our game.
“We want to play a certain game and play it well. We don’t want the game to get loose and untidy.”
Japan are coached by World Cup-winning All Black John Kirwan.
Kirwan is remaining optimistic of a shock.
He said: “We want to take to the field to win. All the guys want to give it their best shot.
“We want to defend with our hearts on our sleeves. We want to hold on to the ball and play some good football.
“I think that Japan has improved enough for everyone to give us respect.”
A minute’s silence will be observed before the match to honour the victims of the recent earthquakes and tsunami.